Oncology Groups Support Ukraine, One Cuts Ties With Russian Docs

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

March 08, 2022

As many in the world react with sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, the oncology community has now stepped into the fray.

All the large cancer organizations have put out statements in support of Ukraine, but one group has gone further and cut its ties with Russia.

"The international cancer specialist network, OncoAlert, severed all cooperation with doctors in Russia as part of the Western sanctions," the group announced on its Twitter page, which is decorated with a blue and yellow ribbon and declares that it "stands with Ukraine."

"The OncoAlert Network is non-political but we cannot stand idle and not take a stand against this aggression towards our Ukrainian friends & colleagues," the group said.

"The network will be pulling out of ALL collaborations & congresses in Russia," it added.

Not surprisingly, the post was inundated with a barrage of inflammatory and politically laced tweets from Russian and Chinese users. Many of them repeated the same phrase about "violating the Hippocratic oath and the Geneva convention," used foul language, and slammed the United States for past military actions in other parts of the world.

A prominent Russian oncologist also responded, posting a video in which he discussed the situation more coherently and without mudslinging or scripted phrases. Andrey Kaprin, MD, PhD, is chief oncologist of the Russian Federation as well as director general of the Federal State Budgetary Institution, NMRCC, of the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation. He says they continue to maintain relations with the largest and best known oncological organizations. "We haven't felt any deterioration in our relationship yet, and of course, we hope that this won't happen."

Kaprin said he believes OncoAlert will return to cooperation with Russia, and that "reason will prevail."

"No one is protected from cancer, not even doctors, and that is why there should be no politics here," he said.

Kaprin was speaking from Russia state-affiliated media, so it was not an independent commentary. Several of the Twitter responses to his video, primarily from non-Russians, were less than complimentary.

One user replied: "Cancer is rife in the kremlin."

Another post pointed out the hypocrisy of Russians being upset that OncoAlert was cutting ties with them. "What about sick Ukrainian kids, having to shelter in hospital basement, not having life saving surgeries because Russia decided to invade a democratic country?"

And another post was not buying the story that "reason will prevail," in that the doctor's talk seemed to contradict the reality of the situation. "I guess for every child #Russia murders they get cut off a little more from the civilized world?"

Cancer Patients Vulnerable

The war in Ukraine is an "unfolding humanitarian emergency," says the World Health Organization, and it has called on top-level officials involved in the Russian invasion to ensure access for delivery of essential medical, surgical, and trauma supplies to help the Ukrainian people and refugees in neighboring countries. A shortage of oxygen, insulin, cancer therapies, and other essential supplies will continue to grow more dire in the weeks and months ahead, WHO officials predict.

One of the more heartbreaking reports described how pediatric cancer patients have been moved to hospital basements that are serving as temporary bomb shelters. Hospital staff continue to try to provide limited treatment when possible, even though essential supplies are dwindling. 

"These children suffer more because they need to stay alive to fight with the cancer — and this fight cannot wait," Lesia Lysytsia, MD, a doctor at Okhmatdyt, the country's largest children's hospital in Kyiv, said in an NBC news report.

For some children, the only treatment available is a basic form of chemotherapy, and at the Kyiv Regional Oncology Center, the situation became so dire for children in need of blood transfusions that physicians began to transfuse blood from parent to child.

"Our patients, they will die," Lysytsia said. "We will calculate how many people or soldiers have died in attacks, but we will never calculate how many patients weren't diagnosed of disease in time, how many patients died because they didn't receive treatment. It's an epic amount of people."

Response From Oncology Community

Many of the large American oncology groups have issued strong statements expressing their support for Ukraine and offering assistance.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) has partnered with the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center-Jefferson Health to support all Ukrainian cancer patients and their families. The groups are engaging a network of oncologists and oncology nurses to provide support through the ACS Clinician Volunteer Corps.

The ACS and ASCO are making free cancer resources available in English, Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian through their patient information websites (available here and here), with additional patient education resources planned. 

The ACS notes that there are more than 179,000 newly diagnosed patients with cancer among the Ukrainian people "suffering from Russia's unprovoked aggression."

"Disruptions to cancer treatment pose a grave risk to the survival of Ukrainian patients with cancer," commented Karen Knudsen, PhD, chief executive officer at the ACS.

ASCO also issued its own statement, declaring that it stands with "our Ukrainian members, the worldwide oncology community, and healthcare providers around the globe in condemning Russia's unprovoked war on Ukraine."

The society notes that it represents oncology professionals in Ukraine and neighboring countries including Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, and Hungary, which are now receiving thousands of refugees from the Russian invasion.

"We are hearing daily reports of cancer treatment interrupted by acts of war, including damage to medical facilities and shortages of critical supplies. Countless patients now need to find cancer care in new and unfamiliar surroundings with limited medical records and minimal resources," the society commented.

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) also issued a statement by President David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD, and CEO Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc). The organization has more than 50,000 members around the world, and they "stand in solidarity with the citizens of Ukraine during the Russian attack on their country."

"This abhorrent war, which has been instigated by Russia's leaders, is isolating and interrupting the lifesaving work of scientists and clinicians in Ukraine and Russia, threatening years of effective research collaborations and community building," the AACR comments. "Limiting the exchange of innovative ideas, practices, and data across borders will significantly retard cancer research and have an adverse effect on public health."

Perhaps the most subdued statement came from the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO), in a brief release entitled, "Against Any War." The society expressed profound sadness about the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine and the suffering of people. "We would like to confirm our solidarity and unconditioned support to all oncology professionals and cancer patients, with no geographical boundaries," said ESMO.

ESMO also said that they were reviewing possibilities "to be of concrete help for our members and their patients, in collaboration with national and transnational oncology societies, as well as the International Cancer Foundation."

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