"Cancer and Armed Conflict: Crossing Realities," by Tamamyan, et al: the story of a young patient with cancer from Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and his thoughts and sufferings during the war in 2020.
Narrator: Cancer and Armed Conflict: Crossing Realities, by Alisa Kamalyan, MSc, Yeva Margaryan, MD, MPH, Jemma Arakelyan, MD, Liana Safaryan, MD, Gevorg Tamamyan, MD, MSc, DSc, and Stella Arakelyan, MD, MPH, MscIH, PhD (10.1200/JCO.22.00663)
In 2007, Armen, a 6-year-old boy from a village in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. NKR is a de facto independent state located in the South Caucasus which has historically been inhabited by Armenians and declared its independence after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991. Armen’s hometown had a small clinic offering only routine health care services. To receive treatment for lymphoma, he and his family had to travel 350 kms to the Hematology Center in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The journey was long and exhausting, but every visit to the Hematology Center filled him with hope, and, ultimately, he achieved a complete remission.
Thirteen years later, Armen, now a young man, returned to the Hematology Center for evaluation of rapid weight loss, persistent pain, and chronic fatigue and was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. First-line chemotherapy and surgery were ineffective, as was second-line therapy with high-dose methotrexate, doxorubicin, and cisplatin. The tumor was growing and spreading rapidly, causing unbearable pain.
Throughout the course of his disease, Armen kept a diary. Recently, his family shared his journal with us, hoping to give a voice to Armen and other young patients with cancer struggling with physical and emotional distress along with overwhelming existential angst.
“In the hospital I had dreams which I could not understand. In one of the dreams, it was midnight, and I knew that I was going to die in 3 hours, but time was running backward, which meant that I was going to die at 8 pm … In another dream, I was undergoing a course of chemotherapy when my phone rang, the call was from Hell. I picked up the phone, and it was one of my relatives from Nagorno-Karabakh who is no longer alive.
But you are dead …, I said to her, surprised.
How are you, my dear? She replied.
Once I hung up the phone, a man dressed in black sat down next to me, made the sign of the cross, and then disappeared …”
At the time, there were no clinical trials available for patients with osteosarcoma in Armenia and his family could not afford to take Armen abroad to receive any experimental therapy, so, after exhausting all available treatment options, Armen returned home to live out his days in the village that helped raise him. We knew that his home environment would provide the support he needed as his cancer journey came to its tragic end. We hoped for his comfort, safety, and peace among those who loved him.
On the morning of September 27, 2020, Armen awoke in a panic, distressed by the loud explosions of bombs dropped on his village as the war between the NKR and Azerbaijan erupted. This conflict, coinciding with the rapid spread of COVID-19 in NKR and Armenia, interrupted access to cancer care and essential palliative medications. Armen was bedridden with intolerable pain and a dwindling supply of analgesics. The encroaching sounds of high-intensity blasts further amplified his anguish and suffering.
Armen’s psychological trauma resulted in nightmares and chronic anxiety as evidenced by his diary entries.
“My house keeps shaking with each explosion, resonating like a high-scale earthquake. Soon, the blasts will shatter all the windows in my house” (October 1, 2020). “Our electricity, heating, and water supplies are cut off. My supply of painkillers is running out” (October 9, 2020). “Don’t think about death– think about the future…”
Within weeks, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict escalated,