Bratislava – “Doctors told me that they no longer had the capacity to help me and that my bed was needed for another patient with better odds of surviving. They said I had two to three months at most,” 41-year-old Svetlana recalls, holding one-year-old Nazar in her arms.
Svetlana discovered she had cancer when she was pregnant with Nazar, just five days before the full-scale war in Ukraine started.
In the Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, the mother of four worked as a nurse at a cardiology centre in the intensive care unit and led a calm life. The pregnancy came as a surprise; Svetlana and her husband were not prepared to have another child. Nevertheless, Svetlana was convinced that her newborn would change her life. In hindsight, she thinks he saved her life.
During the fourth month of pregnancy, Svetlana started getting nauseous and had terrible stomach pain. “At the hospital, I was told that it was probably related to the pregnancy, so I went on with my life and my work, while also trying to take care of my oldest children,” Svetlana recounts.
As the pain progressively got worse during the next four months, she was forced to go to the emergency room, where doctors immediately decided that Svetlana had to undergo an emergency caesarean section. During the surgery, doctors discovered a tumour and later examinations revealed numerous metastases.
“Five days after the birth, Nazar was taken to a hospital in Kharkiv, where he was put on an oxygen machine,” she says. “I was so exhausted after the surgery and upon hearing the news about my health, that I could not even begin to process that the war had started in Ukraine.”
Svetlana considers herself lucky to have given birth before the invasion began. Hospitals in Ukraine were soon repurposed and many cancer surgeries were postponed indefinitely to make room for people who had been injured in combat. Health care facilities had inadequate equipment and frequent power outages drastically reduced the quality of treatment for cancer patients. Long-underfunded health care became overstretched because of the war; hospitals were targeted and patients discharged.
Svetlana was also among those discharged, soon after she was given three months to live.
Her friends and colleagues at the cardiology centre helped her as much as they could. They scrambled to find her medicines, which were becoming increasingly scarce due to supply shortages. Svetlana had a tough time getting an MRI, a CT scan or chemotherapy, which was crucial for her treatment. Leaving Ukraine and seeking treatment abroad was the only option for her and many other cancer patients trying to survive.
“One day a woman called me,” she recalls. “She told me to pack my bags and take my children; she would be waiting for me at the Slovak border in two-day’s time. She said she had arranged everything for my treatment. I immediately packed my belongings for my children, said goodbye to my husband and friends, and took the next train to Uzhhorod.”
At the Slovak border, the family was transferred to a temporary accommodation in Bratislava’s Kramáre district. Once there, she received her second dose of chemotherapy. The nurse who administered it confirmed what she knew already – she had little time left – but a wave of aid was launched in Slovakia to help the family.
Svetlana is currently receiving treatment at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which provides her with the necessary medication and treatment. “Every patient from Ukraine who comes to the outpatient clinic of the NCI undergoes a basic consultation and is then referred to a specialist outpatient clinic according to the diagnosis,” explains Dr Jozef Dolník, Deputy for health care at the NCI. “There, the patient undergoes the necessary diagnostic examination, and a treatment plan is issued.”
“Existential fears rob our patients of the strength they need for treatment,” Dr. Dolník explains.
“The lack of resources for decent accommodation, as well as vitamins and special food, medical devices, and other expenses affects the health status of cancer patients coming from Ukraine. Financial assistance to help them get through the difficult months of chemotherapy or recovering from surgery is of tremendous importance to them and their families but also to the success of their treatment.”
The cash assistance programme implemented by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was initially planned for 400 people, but it has outperformed expectations and highlighted the importance of this type of support for people facing health issues in addition to being displaced from their homes. So far, the programme has provided cash assistance for six months to 211 people with disabilities and 527 people with specific needs. Among these were 51 cancer patients, including Svetlana.
Although she was initially given three months to live, Svetlana has already been living in Slovakia for over a year and her health has visibly improved. Doctors estimate that Svetlana’s treatment will take at least two more years. She likes the country and the people there, and her children go to a new school where they have made new friends. However, she mourns her home country every single day but knows she can only go back once she is back on her feet.
“Since I arrived in Slovakia, I have received help from people I had never seen or heard of,” she explains. “They brought us food, milk for my son, and clothes, and helped us find accommodation. They found an ophthalmologist for my daughter who has eye problems. They organized a day trip for the children, so I could have some time to myself. From time to time, a person would come in and hug me and tell me that everything would be all right. I felt as if I had just been given a dose of painkillers – people wanted me to survive.”
IOM’s cash assistance is possible thanks to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and UK Aid.