Did Cancer Cause War in Ukraine?

Patrick Koske-McBride
7 min readDec 28, 2022

A month or two after Russia’s botched invasion of Ukraine, the geopolitical rumor mill conjectured that Vladimir Putin had some sort of life-limiting disease. I originally saw that tidbit, filed it under “Hot NSA Goss,” and didn’t really think about it. I later saw a piece in “The Independent,” which quoted former secret agent, Christopher Steele claiming Putin was, “Quite seriously ill,” (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/putin-sick-ex-british-spy-ukraine-b2079833.html), and I also filed it away under, “interesting, but not really helpful.” And not really surprising; whilst riding topless on horseback, V. Putin looks like he has cancer. Or he’s the perfect demographic for, cancer, at least. And, look; as a victim of “You don’t look like you have cancer!” I try not to pick on peoples’ image. On the other hand, if you insist on being photographed topless, on horseback, with your insecurities hanging out, that’s on you.

You could tell me he’s a rough 60, and I’d believe it. You could then tell me he was a well-preserved 90, and I would believe that. I would not believe anyone claiming he had nuclear missiles, though. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Then, the Daily Mail published this piece (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11572897/Putin-kept-alive-Western-cancer-drugs-continue-wage-war-Ukraine.html), seemingly confirming not only that particular rumor, but that Dear Old Vlad was being kept alive by stunningly high-tech medicine. When I came across that, this morning, I was actually looking for confirmation that Vlad the Invader unironically had nine rings made for himself and his most-loyal allies, in a move that isn’t reminiscent of Tolkien or some Dan Brown-esque conspiracy, and that Daily Mail article was the first result (it’s the holidays, I’m suffering a stress hangover). I’ve been warned by British friends that the Daily Mail is hardly a bastion of hard-hitting investigative journalism, so, like anyone looking at a day of Amazon refunds, I skimmed it and discounted it.

Then, I started thinking; as a survivor of both life-limiting cancer, and both Standard of Care Treatment AND the sort of high-tech, bleeding-edge treatments this article implies, I’m in a unique position to comment. And, if we just take the basics of that article — that Putin has life-limiting cancer, and is receiving some form of experimental treatment, it starts to explain a helluva lot of the man’s more erratic recent behavior. And, let’s be honest, he looks like he has some sort of chronic disease, but it’s remarkable how much can be explained through the specific lens of cancer survival. “How much?” you ask. A lot. Starting with…

Vlad demonstrating soziale Distanzierung with French President Macron (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
  1. The massive tables — I like big desks and sofas, but I absolutely like my dinner guests to be in the same time zone. Initially, we all wrote this off as, “Oh, those kooky autocrats and their hidden death doors,” but, what if there were a more pragmatic reason? Say, a compromised immune system? Even the mildest cancer treatments (Chai and yoga are delightful, they aren’t cancer treatments) comes with a risk to your immune system. Traditionally, survivors get kitted out with masks, Lysol wipes, and the sort of mysophobia that one associates with Howard Hughes. What if that open display of physical vulnerability wasn’t an option, and we still had to meet with foreign dignitaries on-camera? You put them in a different room, remove the wall, and maintain social distancing. Not the safest or most effective strategy, but it beats the hell out of “thoughts and prayers.” If Putin’s on an experimental treatment protocol, maintaining health is absolutely critical, because treatments are carefully timed and calibrated, and you do not want to screw that up. For those of us who aren’t running a criminal cartel with a seat in the UN Security Council, we tend to go big and tell people to stay away from us. Hell, one of my leukemia friends canceled plans once because her throat felt a little scratchy. If your survival — both political and actual — depends upon projecting strength, you set up a football field-sized conference room in which you can stay a dozen yards from the nearest source of germs. And, if I were a cynical man, I would point out that space allows for any number of invisible-to-the-camera germ barriers, so you can hold your Legion of Doom meetings with no one knowing that a headcold could kill you.
  2. General incompetence — Even though Russian “competence” is a joke throughout the Baltic Republics and Nordic nations, there was a certain lack of preparation in the invasion. Almost as if someone forgot about it until it was too late. And there’s an ongoing lack of focus or coherent mission. Those of us who’ve been on the wrong end of the infusion pump can go on at length about “chemo brain,” or “brain fog.” It’s poorly studied, but every single survivor experience that similar cognitive difficulty while in treatment. You can actually replicate this experience — go on a redeye trans-Atlantic flight, with some irate infants. Except, instead of making your way to the luggage collection when you arrive, you must coordinate logistical support for an artillery division. Yes, trying to run an effective, illegal occupation whilst neurologically debilitated will do that. Also, at this point, as someone who participated in a clinical trial, it’s worth noting that a major drawback of being in a clinical trial is that nobody knows the side effects. My treatments gave me terrifying hallucinations (this is true). Thankfully, I didn’t have nuclear warheads to launch at the flatware that attacked me, but a psychotic break is well within the limits of possibility.
  3. Erratic/inappropriate retaliation upon Civilians — Part of surviving cancer treatment means that, eventually, you will be prescribed some sort of steroid (the boring, anti-inflammatory ones, not the sexy, bodybuilder ones). You only experience two emotions on hateful, hateful dexamethasone: Hangry, or gassy malaise. Being provoked into a screaming match over a prescription refill or who ate the last damned pop-tart aren’t unheard of. Mass murder is a bit of a stretch, but, I won’t pretend I wouldn’t have ordered a drone strike or two in my darker moments.
  4. Closeness to the hilariously incompetent Wagner Group — There’s a ton of euphemisms used to describe Wagner, but, from the information provided to me by a combat vet friend (Iraq); they’re just laughably ineffective mercenaries who specialize in torture. Why would Vlad send them in when he, presumably, has the Spetsnaz on speed dial? Well, apart from most former Spetsnaz soldiers going to work for Wagner; on Planet Cancer, you don’t get to choose your friends. Most people tend to recoil when they learn you have a fatal illness; you don’t get the privilege of being selective in who actually shows up to help in your hour of need. I would wager that Putin is very selective in who he discloses this disease to, and, like most of us, people tend to run either far and fast, or embrace you and drive you to the infusion center when you’re too fatigued. In Russia, the difference is; if you run from Vlad, you run out of a skyscraper in a fit of depression (seriously, how many oligarchs dropped this month?), or you get a sweet, sweet contract with the Red Army, despite numerous losses and international outrage.
  5. Increasingly poor decisions — If you’ve read this far, I’ll assume you agree with the general premise that Russia screwed up the initial invasion, and, not only lost the initiative, but has made increasingly terrible choices, both from the battlefield and political standpoint. Do we even know what a victory in Ukraine would look like, for Russia? Trick question; it changed in the seconds it took you to answer. So, treatment with cancer tends to go in one of two horrible directions — either treatment is initially effective, and tweaks are made in the protocol, and clever survivors conduct an internal audit into the decision-making process, and the decisions get better. Or treatment is minimally effective, or ineffective, and patients and medical teams scramble to develop a safe treatment protocol. This starts the Treatment Cycle of doom — either that third time is the charm, or it’s back to the drawing board. If the latter, that starts a series of increasingly risky, less-effective attempts to manage the disease. They’re usually unsuccessful, and result in the disease permanently establishing itself in the patient’s body. In both cases, there’s a lot of confirmation bias, one way or another; either we tend to look at reasons why treatment’s working, or we look for reasons why we’re going to die (the threat of imminent demise tends to focus one’s attention like that). One could imagine the sort of strategic blunders made if a physician consult had to be fitted between planning military operations or suing foreign nations for frozen assets. If treatment was effective, Vlad faces the “Curse of Maintenance Treatment.” This is the nightmare success story in which oncologists dose you regularly with your effective drugs. At the start, it’s unpleasant. After seven months? It fuckin’ sucks in ways you can’t imagine without enduring. There would certainly be a vague apathy toward murder, to be certain, although most of us choose a slightly healthier outlet than “Bomb Kyiv.”
  6. Obsession with legacy — One commonality across Planet Cancer is our legacy. We’re aware that, all too soon, we won’t be the tellers of our own story. Now, 99.99% of us choose not to go the serial killer route (which is a writer’s trope; we’re far too fatigued for murder), but we all channel it into something. I tried to write the Great American Novel. My breastie, Karen, is actively trying to be the World’s Best Grandma, and she’s gonna make it. Vladimer Putin chose a bizarre attempt to resurrect a country that has not existed for over 30 years. In this, he’s almost required to have a terminal cancer. Most societies remember those who die bravely more than those who triumph (either easily or bloodily). Russia is obsessed with strong-man autocrats who furthered Russian landholdings. If Putin dies before the Ukraine War is definitively decided, he’s a Hero of the Soviet Republic. He’s Stalin. If he dies after they lose, he’s Ivan Silyav. For those of you wondering who Ivan Silyav is, that drives home the point.

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Patrick Koske-McBride

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”