In war-torn Ukraine, medical staff struggle to treat cancer with Israeli assistance

Ukrainian doctors are trying to improve cancer treatment nationwide. Cooperation with Israeli doctors from Hadassah might make it possible.

Patients receive cancer treatment at the National Care Institute in Kyiv. (photo credit: OLEKSIY SAMSONOV)
Patients receive cancer treatment at the National Care Institute in Kyiv.
(photo credit: OLEKSIY SAMSONOV)

When Dr. Anna Uzlova took part in founding a charity organization for cancer patients in 2020, she thought it would face just the ordinary challenges that come with treating cancer: raising money for expensive treatments, educating about the disease, and helping people get better. She never imagined the turn her work would take due to the Russian military invasion of Ukraine.  

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“Our patients now must fight two enemies. The disease, and the invasion. They have no choice but to win both of them,” she told The Media Line, in an interview from the National Care Institute in bombed-out Kyiv. “We realized at an early stage that the war is going to go on for a while. So, we decided to continue our efforts to treat cancer patients, and build a nationwide system to save them, under fire.” 

In March 2022, one month into the war, an unexpected offer appeared in Uzlova’s inbox. “I got a message from Dr. Polina Stepensky from Israel, offering us help in building a large-scale treatment system, by training medical staff. Of course, we said yes, and in no time the project started.” 

Stepensky is a pediatric oncologist and hematologist at Hadassah University Medical Center-Ein Kerem in Jerusalem and is considered a groundbreaking researcher in cancer treatment.  

“I saw one of the founders of the charity organization they founded, and I thought to myself: the thing that helped me most as a doctor was training abroad. Maybe I can help them by providing training,” Stepensky told The Media Line.  

People stand next to a residential house destroyed by a Russian missile strike in the settlement of Kushuhum, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine August 10, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/Dmytro Smolienko)People stand next to a residential house destroyed by a Russian missile strike in the settlement of Kushuhum, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine August 10, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/Dmytro Smolienko)

But it wasn’t just a regular collegial collaboration. Stepensky was born in the former Soviet Union, in a small village that today is located in Ukraine. This was personal for her.  

“I remember the morning of the attack, the bombs started falling on Kyiv at 4 a.m. It threw me back to a song we learned at elementary school, which talks about how Kyiv was bombed [by Nazi Germany] at 4 a.m. It was a horrible feeling, knowing all my classmates are running to shelters. So, I thought, maybe I can be of help, in my field of expertise.”

After receiving an OK from Ukraine, Stepensky immediately started to organize the logistics. 

“Everyone was so eager to help. My secretary worked day and night to arrange everything, voluntarily. We collected the money and the necessary permits, and soon enough, we had Ukrainian medical staff on their way here,” she said. 

By May 2022, the training program was on its way. “The important thing for me was to teach them how to create a holistic system. Doctors are easy to train, that’s not the issue. But a nurse can make a huge difference if they know what they are doing, and social workers as well. They didn’t even have this concept, and they were astonished by what they do,” Stepensky said. 

Another important part of the training had to do with advanced treatment. 

“Here in Hadassah, we have some of the most advanced treatment methods in the world, such as CAR-T (cell therapy). But we also learned how to run treatment protocols in very efficient ways. This could save an enormous amount of money for the health system,” according to Stepensky.

 Smoke rises over the remains of a building destroyed by a military strike, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Lysychansk, Luhansk region, Ukraine June 17, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/OLEKSANDR RATUSHNIAK) Smoke rises over the remains of a building destroyed by a military strike, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Lysychansk, Luhansk region, Ukraine June 17, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/OLEKSANDR RATUSHNIAK)

Back in Ukraine

Back in Ukraine, Uzlova explains how crucial it is. 

“The medical system in Ukraine is not far from collapsing. Sure, we had problems in purchasing some of the treatments before the war, because they were always expensive. But after the fights started everything just became harder to do, and way more expensive.”

Stepensky hopes more medical staff from Ukraine can arrive at Hadassah soon for training. 

“The (Hadassah) Women's Zionist Organization of America granted us another $150,000 from fundraising to keep the program running. I hope it will be enough for another year of training. We have a lot of knowledge to share, and the Ukrainian teams are eager to learn. We are still in close contact with them on a regular basis, to help them improve the system,” she said. 

“The (Hadassah) Women's Zionist Organization of America granted us another $150,000 from fundraising to keep the program running. I hope it will be enough for another year of training. We have a lot of knowledge to share, and the Ukrainian teams are eager to learn."

Dr. Polina Stepensky

The support for the project is only growing, and comes from all directions, Stepensky says. 

“There was not one department in the hospital that didn’t open its gates for them, for anything we asked for. We are also in touch with the Israeli embassy in Kyiv, to make visa granting faster for future teams,” she said. 

Israel was publicly slammed by Ukraine several times since the war started for not taking a clearer stand on its fight against Russia, and for not supplying it with military aid. Training medical staff, says Stepensky, is another way of providing aid, humanitarian aid. 

“It was important for me to show them how people in Israel support Ukraine, and I’m glad to say it was very easy. When we went to the beach one day, complete strangers who saw us realized they are doctors from Ukraine and immediately asked if they can buy them anything. I told them they can get them ice cream,” she said, laughing.

“It was a great stay in Israel, and it really helped us to improve our treatment,” Uzlova said. “I believe this cooperation with Hadassah will continue and am looking forward to it. I mean, we need to keep treating patients no matter what, and find ways to do it with less money. And who better than Israelis to teach us how to run a health system under fire?”

Before the war, there were nearly 1 million people in Ukraine with a history of cancer, and about a third of them were receiving active treatment, Uzlova estimates. 

“It’s almost impossible to get data now. We try to focus on areas that aren’t occupied, and right now at least Kyiv is a little more stable. It helps, but on the other hand, we know that there are many patients in occupied territories who we can’t help. When we receive calls from them our first advice is to try and make it to the free areas in Ukraine,” she said. 

Since the war started, at least three cancer treatment centers have been occupied by the Russian army, in Kherson, Melitopol and Mariupol. 

“When Russia took medical centers, it killed doctors and patients, and by preventing treatment more people die daily. What worries me is that the world is already forgetting about the war. The fight is ongoing, and the medical fight is also ongoing. We need monetary support from our allies, and we need them to remember that nothing is over. It’s a fight for life,” Uzlova said.