Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

From Mafia to Minister: Slavko’s Story (p3)

This post is the third part of a three-part story. I suggest you read part one and two before continuing on.

For six years Slavko and Sanja were refugees. In that time their country changed. Yugoslavia dissolved (and was dissolving). Their hometown, Mostar, was now part of a new country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their once diverse city was now divided—east against west. They swore never to return.

However, something else changed. Slavko and Sanja started an adventure and they did not know how it would end. They decided to follow God’s lead.

God led them back to Mostar. For five years Slavko and his family lived there, working with a humanitarian aid organization, completing Bible school, and serving as an assistant in a local Evangelical Church. Just as they began to grow comfortable with their new (old) home, God began to lead them in a different direction.

Their path was leading to Sarajevo.

Sarajevo skyline (photo by Josh Irby)

Sarajevo skyline (photo by Josh Irby)

 Although both Mostar and Sarajevo are in the same country, they are different in many ways. Mostar is a Mediterranean climate, Sarajevo hosted the winter Olympics. Mostar feels like a small town, Sarajevo is the capital city. Mostar looks westward, Sarajevo looks eastward. However, both are diverse. Both survived a siege. Both cities are, in a way, wounded.

In September 2003, Slavko and Sanja, along with their children Jovana and David, moved to Sarajevo. Slavko was the new minister at a local Evangelical Church. The job came with inherent challenges, but the work gave him purpose.

The church was (and is) regularly involved in humanitarian work in the community. Each Christmas the church youth perform a puppet show for the neighborhood children and distribute presents to all who attend. This year 300 children came. The church also feeds 20-30 local families with monthly food distribution.

Slavko and his family were settling into their new home. When he would go back and visit his friends in Mostar they made fun of the new “Sarajevan” words he started to use. He was assimilating. He was happy.


Slavko installed as pastor of the church

During the first few months of 2008, Slavko noticed something wasn’t right. He discovered a growth on his body he couldn’t explain. After consulting a doctor friend, he went in for an ultrasound.

The growth, which was on his testicle, was a tumor. The doctor delivered the bad news. There are two types of testicular tumors—the bad kind and the worse kind. Both are cancerous. He must surgically remove it immediately.

In April the tumor was cut out and in June he started radiation therapy. Despite the horrible circumstances, Slavko did not lose heart. Perhaps after surviving a war, refugee life, and Jovana’s medical uncertainty, he was ready to face any challenge.

In fact, he joked about it.

“I thought my testicles were getting bigger because I am THE MAN. In the end, it was just cancer.”

God had prepared Slavko to meet the challenge. However, there were more obstacles to come.


The year after surviving cancer, Slavko decided to go back to school. He had completed his studies at the Bible School, but still lacked a University degree. He applied to the Theological College in Osijek, Croatia and started taking classes while continuing to lead the church in Sarajevo.

He also moved his family to a new apartment. They needed more space for their growing children. He sold his parent’s apartment in Mostar and secured a nice home with only a 5-year loan. As a cancer survivor, Slavko knew the brevity of life.  He would live his while he could.

In December—around Christmas—his life changed again.

At the beginning of the fall, Slavko started experiencing pain from his right kidney. At one point, he was in so much pain that he could not stand up to drive himself to the Emergency Room. When he finally made it to the ER, the doctor diagnosed him with kidney stones. He took the prescribed medicine and waited for the stones to pass. However, the pain continued to increase.

By December, he couldn’t take the pain anymore. A new doctor prescribed a CAT scan. It revealed a tumor almost 3 inches long right against his vena cava. His kidney had stopped functioning and was completely blocked off by the tumor.

For the second time in his life, cancer invaded his body. But this one, because of its proximity to a major vein, was inoperable.

Slavko broke.

“Why, God? Why me? Why two times?”

The peace that pervaded his first bout with cancer evaporated. He felt numb. After years of following God, forsaking his inheritance, and serving in the church, the all-powerful God allowed this to happen.

“What if I don’t survive? What will happen to my family? Who will pay off the debt on our apartment? How can Sanja work and take care of the kids?”

Questions drenched his prayers. There were no answers.

In January, he started intensive chemotherapy. They pumped a week’s worth of chemicals into his body then gave his system two weeks to rest. A friend who had been through chemo told him that the first cycle is easy, but each cycle after gets progressively worse. By the fourth cycle, his friend couldn’t even make it up one flight of stairs to his house. Slavko’s apartment was on the top floor of his building, 6 flights from the bottom with no elevator. He wasn’t sure how he—or his family—would survive.

After two weeks of recovery he returned for his second cycle. The doctor drew his blood and he waited impatiently for the results. In order to go through the next round of treatment, his white blood cell count needed to be at least 3×109 cells per cubic millimeter (cmm). Anything less and the doctor would postpone the treatment another week or more. He knew that every day they waited, the cancer grew stronger.

He returned to the doctor’s office two days later for the results. His white blood cell count was 2.3×109 cmm—too low.

The doctor told him to reschedule for the next week. But he was determined.

“Listen, I am a believer in God and I believe that God can do miracles. Can you draw my blood again and see if my white cell count is higher today?”

The doctor was skeptical. “It doesn’t work that way. Two days is not enough time for the count to change. But, if you insist, we will put this to rest.”

On the way to the lab, Slavko asked Sanja to pray that the numbers would be higher. He prayed too. He asked God to raise his count to at least 2.9×109. He didn’t have faith to ask for more. If God could get him to 2.9, he thought he could talk the doctor into going ahead with the chemo.

Thirty minutes later the results came back. The doctor couldn’t explain it. His white blood cell count was 7.7.

In that moment, everything changed for Slavko. It was a reintroduction to the God he first met 18 years earlier in war-torn Mostar. It was a reminder that even in the worst of moments, someone is in control. Not just anyone, but someone who loved him.

The following week they ordered an MRI, but couldn’t find the tumor. It was gone. Assuming the machine was wrong, they repeated the MRI. The 3-inch cancer had disappeared without a trace.

If you ask Slavko, he will tell you that God healed him. But God healed more than his disease, he mended his heart.

Slavko and his family during chemotherapy

Slavko and his family during chemotherapy

He finished out the chemotherapy on the request of his doctors. He lost all of his hair, eyebrows, lashes, and nails, dropped almost 70lbs, and had to wear a fluid bag because of his kidney failure. But nothing could dull his joy. Apart from the first cycle, he never missed a Sunday in church, drove himself to all of his appointments, and ascended the 88 steps to his apartment in his own power.

For the past two years he has remained cancer free. His kidneys started working again and have grown stronger in the past six months.

Today, he continues to minister in the church. He finished his studies and graduated last fall with a theology degree. He travels around the world speaking, teaching, and sharing his story.

Slavko with Jovana and David at his graduation

Slavko with Jovana and David at his graduation

He has only one regret. He wishes he had asked God for more.

In his typical jovial way he jokes, “Five years ago when I first discovered cancer, I was worried because we had just taken out a loan for our apartment. What would the family do without me? So I asked God to give me five more years of life to pay off the loan. Well, it has been five years. I hope he doesn’t take my prayer too seriously!”

In the final post Slavko answers the following questions:

You escaped a war, lived as a refugee, and survived cancer twice. What have you learned about facing difficult things in life?

What have these experiences taught you about God?

What would you say to those currently dealing with difficult circumstances?


About Josh