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How doctors are treating cancer in Ukrainian war zones

In Ukraine, patients and healthcare workers are sheltered in hospital basements. Oncologists have to map out what procedures they can and can't do.

BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md. — As many as 160,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed every year in Ukraine, and health experts say continuing care for these patients, either in new countries or in their homeland, may pose a global health challenge.

It's images that we’ve seen almost every day for months; shelled-out cities in Ukraine, women and children heading for the border and men staying behind to fight. Mercy Medical Center surgical oncologist, Vadim Gushchin, MD, was invited to Ukraine in 2012 before the war and met with leaders in Luhansk to discuss an American-led hospital there. He formed a bond with his Ukrainian counterparts.

“I can't even imagine how difficult it was for them to survive and provide patient care,” he said.

Dr. Gushchin says the Ukrainian doctors texted him when the invasion started. Patients and healthcare workers sheltered in hospital basements. Oncologists began to map out what procedures they could and couldn’t do.

“What if there is no electricity and the treatment is terminated midway? So, what do you do?” Dr. Gushchin said.

Roads were blocked and infrastructure was broken, so chemotherapy and radiation supplies became a deep concern. Some patients were evacuated.

“They decided to outsource higher acuity care to safer places or to send patients to Europe,” Dr. Gushchin added.  

Cancer care for refugees can be tricky, as medical records are hard to access, and language could become a barrier. Dr. Gushchin said that another obstacle is the dwindling number of Ukrainian oncologists – many of the male oncologists also felt compelled to serve, and joined the Ukrainian army. 

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