LVIV, Ukraine -- Shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Inna Shchukina from the northeastern city of Kharkiv was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent an operation and began chemotherapy.
Then the war started, with Russian forces targeting the city of some 1.4 million people just 30 kilometers from the border between the two countries.
“We fled the city,” she told an RFE/RL correspondent in the western city of Lviv. “There was shelling, but luckily we had a car. Our lives were in danger…. It is just awful. My city is being wiped off the face of the Earth.”
Now, Shchukina is being treated at the Lviv Regional Oncological Medical and Diagnostic Center, alongside locals and displaced people from across the war-ravaged country. The center accepts all comers, although it is currently experiencing acute shortages of chemotherapeutic drugs and supplies.
“Yesterday, we had 52 patients, and 45 of them were…from the east and the south,” said Yaroslav Shparyk, head of chemotherapy at the Lviv center. “The number of patients from places like Kherson, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Mariupol is increasing exponentially.”
Olena, who asked to be identified only by her first name, came to Lviv from Kyiv.
My things were already at the [hospital]. I knew the ward, the doctor who would operate on me. At 5:30, my brother called me and said Kyiv was being bombed.”-- Ulyana, a cancer patient
“The last session I had in Kyiv was in a shelter,” she recounted as she was being given her final chemo treatment. “I was ready to kiss the hands of the doctors.”
In Lviv, Olena is staying with friends. She says she was lucky to be able to get her medicines and the hypodermic needles she needed at a local pharmacy.
“Every last thing had already been bought up at the pharmacy,” she said. “There are no more cancer medications…. And there are thousands like me.”
'A High Cancer Burden'
More than 160,000 Ukrainians were diagnosed with cancer in 2020, according to the World Health Organization.
“Ukraine has a high cancer burden,” stated a March 11 editorial in The Lancet medical journal. “…[T]hose with cancer are especially vulnerable if their care is interrupted by Russia’s violence against the country. Continued access to oncology services must be available for displaced persons.”
Before the war, patients were provided medicines at the clinics where they were being treated.
“Today, many hospitals are cut off from the world,” said Oleh Duda, deputy head of surgery at the Lviv oncology center. “They can’t send us this medicine. Now we are grappling with the problem of providing chemotherapy at our center and other oncological facilities in western Ukraine.”
Duda said his center continues to provide surgical treatments.
“The drugs for surgeries are still available because the number of scheduled surgeries has been reduced,” he explained. “Surgery for benign tumors can wait.”
Shparyk added that humanitarian aid organizations, foreign oncological centers, and foreign pharmaceutical companies are collecting assistance.
On March 10, an emergency international meeting of cancer organizations was convened to develop a support network for Ukrainian refugees and displaced persons. More than 220 individuals representing more than 30 cancer groups attended the meeting, which was organized by the European Cancer Organization, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and the WHO, according to a report in The Lancet.
Ulyana, a patient from Kyiv who asked that her surname be withheld, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Her surgery at the Kyiv Oncological Center was scheduled for February 24, the day the invasion began.
“My things were already at the center,” she told RFE/RL. “I knew the ward, the doctor who would operate on me. At 5:30, my brother called me and said Kyiv was being bombed.”
She tried to make her way to the hospital anyway.
“Traffic was standing still,” she said. “It was terrifying. Children with backpacks and carrying cats had left their cars and were walking. There were many accidents.”
She called the hospital from her car and was told all operations had been canceled.
The next day, she decided to flee to her parents’ home in western Ukraine.
“I didn’t have any of my records,” Ulyana said. “But my nurse left the bomb shelter to go to the hospital and take photos of everything to send me. There are so many beautiful people in Ukraine!”
The Lviv center welcomed her and quickly scheduled her surgery.
“Dr. Duda performed my operation,” she said.