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Cab driver in Italy offers free rides to people with cancer

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It is almost impossible not to notice Caterina Bellandi's taxi driving around Florence, Italy: it's colorful, decorated with drawings of animals and flowers.

Even Bellandi herself attracts a lot of attention, as she is dressed like an eccentric Mary Poppins, wearing a lot of pendants and a hat with flowers and feathers.

The 53-year-old, known as Auntie Caterina, is a regular taxi driver who offers free rides to cancer sufferers.

Her partner Stefano died in 2001 from lung cancer: he was a taxi driver and Bellandi inherited his license and his cab, "Milano 25".

She has dealt with the pain of his loss by driving his cab and offering free rides to sick people, especially children, is a way to honour the memory of Stefano.

"We are all the legacy of something else, always and forever. In this case, I am the legacy of a life, of a thought, a path, and even a job. My beloved one was a taxi driver and he left me his cab. Celebrating his life, honouring his path of suffering, his ordeal, means to celebrate the lives I meet, who also experience ordeal and suffering," she says.

In her years of helping sick children and adults, Bellandi says young people deal with serious diseases in a different way from grown-ups.

"Children are more aware of what the human suffering is than grownups, who try to block it out," she says.

Bellandi is a godsend for a lot of people who are forced to leave their hometowns and travel to Florence for treatment.

Among them is Erica Scoccati, a 22-year-old from Grosseto, a town 2 hours from Florence. Her dream was to be a dancer but in July 2017 she was diagnosed with a brain cancer and has to go to Florence for chemotherapy.

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Scoccati is often driven around by Bellandi and says that Auntie Caterina helps her to escape from her everyday life.

"Auntie Caterina has been very important to me. When you have this kind of disease you have to undergo treatment and you can't stay at home (in Grosseto, her hometown), so you don't have friends or boyfriends, just on the phone but you don't see them. So you have to stay all day long at home (she means: by yourself, in Florence), I stayed with my mum. When I see Auntie Caterina, during my treatment, she drives me around and she has given me a lot of love, even if I didn't need that because my parents where there, but she has helped me to shut out what was going on," says Scoccati.

Auntie Caterina is often also a big help for parents, who feel lost when their child is diagnosed with cancer.

She says she can save nobody, but can share the suffering of those who are in her taxi.

"Parents feel lost and their reaction is sometimes to retire into themselves and sometimes to open up, it also depends on their background," Bellandi says. "Auntie's job is to open the doors of suffering with the hope of being able to share it. I can't save anybody from suffering, I can just share it, like death: death is inevitable but it is possible to share it when we are alive, and we can learn to die better. I don't say 'not die,' but to die better."

Other passengers in Auntie Caterina's taxi include Moira and her daughter Angelica, who come from Pompiano, a city near Brescia, in northern Italy.

Angelica is 4 years old and was diagnosed with cancer when she was just 10 months old. She suffered from gangliogliomas, a tumour of the central nervous system. She comes to Florence three times a year to undergo MRI scans. Caterina welcomes them into the cab, where Angelica can find books, toys and dolls to play with.

Moira met Bellandi at the hospital three years ago and says they became close friends.

"We met Auntie Caterina when Angelica (her daughter) was undergoing chemotherapy. One day she entered the room, she was already accompanying another child, and she entered smiling, and it was love at first sight," Moira says.

Since Moira lives with her family in northern Italy and doesn't know anyone in Florence, Bellandi has given her great support.

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"She welcomes us, she supports us, she's close to us, she never leaves us, Auntie Caterina is a lot of things to us. When we came here (in Florence) we didn't know anybody, she's our family now, she's part of our family," Moira explains.

"(Auntie Caterina) taught me that, at the end of the tunnel, there is always a light, and I accepted this lesson, and I found the strength to keep going down the tunnel, and we did that and we have found our light, which is Angelica's recovery," Moira adds.

Bellandi's taxi is decorated with drawings of animals, representing children she has met over the years. Auntie Caterina calls them "superheroes" and Angelica is depicted as a little mouse in a purple dress, with a doll in her hand.

Even though she's regularly at hospitals, Bellandi doesn't receive any financial support from them: she's helped by volunteers and she mostly bears the costs herself. When she's not giving patients lifts, she works as a regular taxi driver, mainly during the night.

In 2006 Bellandi set up a charity, called "onlus Milano 25", which organizes trips and pilgrimages for sick young passengers and their parents.

She would like to buy a caravan in order to accompany children with disabilities or restricted mobility.

In March 2018 Bellandi was recognized as "Tuscany's Solidarity Ambassador", a title created specifically for her, in order to show the gratitude and the support of the Tuscany Region for her work.

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