When she fled Russian occupation of her hometown in Ukraine with her 82-year-old mother and two suitcases in tow, Larysa Irkliienko could not have imagined that her life would be saved a second time, almost a year later, in a country thousands of miles away.
It was precisely because of that escape from an invasion of Russian troops and tanks that UCHealth physicians found an aggressive form of colon cancer during a routine colonoscopy that likely would have claimed her life had she not emigrated.
“If I stayed in Ukraine, it is war,” said Larysa, who is advancing quickly in learning to read, write and speak English. “By the time they might have found the colon cancer, it would probably be too late.”
Larysa is one of four generations of Irkliienko women living together in Estes Park. They include her mother Galyna, her daughter Iryna, and her granddaughter Angelina. Larysa’s journey to this mountain community was a long and difficult one and its origin was painful and shattering for her and thousands of others who fled their country to wait out a conflict that has destroyed the lives they once knew.
It was February 2022 and the world watched in horror as Russian troops began invading Ukraine in an attempt to overthrow the Western-aligned government that they claimed as part of “historical Russia.”
Larysa lived in the heart of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city with a population of 1.4 million. Kharkiv is located in the northeast part of the country near the Russian border. It soon became an epicenter for fighting because of its proximity to Russia and was one of its first conquests, as soldiers and tanks rolled in and bombs dropped on the town square, as well as the nearby countryside where her mother lived.
Escaping from their homeland of Ukraine
“At first, there were not many Russian soldiers because they thought it would be easy to take over, but our country was fighting back. Then, lots of Russian tanks came,” Larysa said.
The shock was perhaps harder for Kharkiv residents since they had lived and worked alongside Russian citizens for years.
“I can speak Russian, and we got along for a long time. They came and went to our pubs, stores and shops. It was chipper, it was nice. But not now. It’s so sad. So near my house … five minutes away was bombed … beautiful parts of my city were destroyed by Russian bombs,” she said.
The countryside was also being shelled – the roof and windows of her mother’s house were blown off, and neighbors’ homes were in ruins. It reached a crisis point when family members were worried that they would be cut off completely from Galyna.
That’s when Larysa knew they had to leave.
Since her mother was no longer safe in her country home, Larysa brought her to Kharkiv, where they began gathering the necessary paperwork and documents required to emigrate. Problems with her mother’s passport (the city had no functioning government) caused some delays, but after two stressful months of living in the eye of the war’s storm, they left their homes and country.
“I had two suitcases: one for my mom and one for me.”
The lack of public infrastructure made their trek even more arduous. There were no commercial planes in Ukraine, and train and bus schedules were erratic at best. They managed to board a train to the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, near the Polish border. From there, they took a bus into Poland, then caught a plane to Munich and from there, were able to fly to the United States.
Nearly 300,000 Ukrainians have been admitted into the U.S. since the Russian invasion, while another 8 million have fled to European nations. After Ukrainians arrive in the U.S., they are granted “humanitarian parole” status, which allows them to work legally, and they are eligible to obtain certain federal benefits such as health care assistance.
Larysa and her mother were included in this wave, and four months after the war began, they arrived in Denver.
“It was so hard and such a long way,” Larysa recalled. “It was so hard.”
She didn’t know it then, but it would soon get harder.
Ukrainian refugee story continues with fresh trials
Awaiting Larysa’s arrival was her 35-year-old daughter, Iryna, who has been living in Estes Park for the past 16 years. Iryna settled permanently in the town that sits at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park after falling in love with the natural beauty of the area and its strong sense of community during a summer stint as a college exchange student in 2007.
Once she graduated from college in Ukraine, it was her mom who urged her to move, telling her she’d find more opportunities in America. It was advice she’s embraced with a passion.
She is a medical staff coordinator at Estes Park Health, is pursuing a master’s degree in health care administration and manages to find time to own and operate Rocky Mountain Deli.
“I love living here. I absolutely love it. It’s an amazing community that supports us with the challenges going on in Ukraine,” Iryna said.
Larysa, who had been an engineer in her previous life, was adjusting to challenges here as well. Like her daughter, she was enamored with the nearby mountain splendor and the town’s welcoming attitude. She worked at the deli and enjoyed meeting tourists from around the world who stopped in on their way to the park.
By the start of 2023, the females in the Irkliienko household — who range in age from 11 to 82 and all speak Ukrainian — had settled into their new lives. Then, during a routine physical, Larysa’s primary care physician advised her to get a colonoscopy. Although she was feeling fine, she had been losing weight, something she attributed to stress.
At 59, she was long overdue for a colonoscopy under guidelines issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which recommends adults be screened for colorectal cancer beginning at age 45 to 50, or 10 years before the age that an immediate family member was diagnosed with cancer.
Nearly 30 years ago, Larysa’s father died of colon cancer at age 54. And she is a cancer survivor herself, having had a lumpectomy in 2020 after a breast cancer diagnosis.
Facing a tough medical journey with her typical ‘efficient’ manner
A few weeks later, she found herself at Estes Park Health with Dr. Jennifer McLellan, a general surgery specialist. When McLellan began the colonoscopy, she immediately knew something was wrong. She couldn’t get the scope past a large mass in the sigmoid colon, which is the last section of the bowel that is connected to the rectum. It is one of the most common places where colon cancer occurs.
“Most of the time, we expect to find polyps when we do a routine colonoscopy, but it is unusual to find full-blown cancer,” McLellan said. “Even though Larysa hadn’t been experiencing any symptoms, it was very advanced.”
The final pathologic analysis of Larysa’s tumor showed that she had stage 2 colon cancer, but one of an aggressive nature.
“I was scared. I had no symptoms,” Larysa said. “I have been healthy all my life, eat good food and have a good diet. I don’t know why cancer came to me.”
McLellan emphasized how news like this can be especially devastating for patients who just expect a routine procedure.
“If someone had symptoms, they might have an idea that something’s wrong. But when you come in just for preventative screening, and you leave with a diagnosis of cancer … that is very difficult,” she said.
Because the Estes Park hospital is a partner with UCHealth, McLellan was able to message her colleague Dr. Heather Lewis, on oncology surgeon at UCHealth Cancer Center – Harmony Campus in Fort Collins, who was able to perform surgery in February, less than two weeks later.
The operation was minimally invasive, with Lewis using instruments on a robotic platform to remove all cancer tissue and surrounding lymph nodes through small incisions on Larysa’s abdomen.
Her medical team was encouraged that CT scans showed the cancer had not spread to surrounding organs. While it was categorized as a stage 2, which normally doesn’t call for chemotherapy, its aggressive nature elevated Larysa’s cancer to a more urgent level of follow-up treatment.
“In some stage 2 cancer patients, we look at the pathology to see if it puts them at a higher risk of cancer reoccurrence and in Larysa’s case, we felt she would benefit from chemotherapy,” Lewis said.
Dr. Douglas Kemme, an oncologist at UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic in Loveland, treated Larysa during three months of traditional chemotherapy combined with an oral chemo medication called CAPOX.
“She was a real trooper,” he said. “Being in a foreign country and dealing with all the trials and tribulations that come with that – language barriers, cultural barriers, trust issues – is hard. But she had the best attitude and was always positive. She’s tough.”
Toughness is a word often used to describe Larysa.
“She is a very strong woman to go through cancer and adapt to a medical system different from your own and a country that functions different than your own, with language and cultural hurdles,” Lewis said. “It is scary to have a cancer diagnosis under any circumstance, but to be in an environment where English is not your first language, it can be even more daunting.”
Iryna said the sobering news of her mom’s cancer was countered by the care she received from her doctors and care staff.
“It was definitely a shock for sure, but I knew we were in the right place, with more resources than where she had come from,” Iryna said.
The family got good news when a follow-up colonoscopy in July showed no sign of cancer. Her future health protocol includes blood tests, CT scans and more colonoscopies, and the ordeal prompted Iryna to recently have one as well, which was normal.
Savoring the present but missing her life in Ukraine
The past year and a half has been bittersweet for the Irkliienkos. They are heartbroken at the destruction of their country, and the lives lost. But they are bolstered by the outpouring of emotional sustenance from the Estes Park community and grateful for the medical care they received, crediting doctors with saving Larysa’s life.
“When we found out about the cancer, I told momma: ‘At least you are in the right country.’ We are blessed. It was so stressful and nerve-wracking, but everyone feels so blessed,” Iryna said.
As a way to give back, every Wednesday is “Ukraine Day” at her restaurant, and the menu features Ukrainian food. The family sends proceeds back to Ukraine.
“We work directly with families we know who are in need. We help those we know. It’s been a lot of fun, and we’ve had so much support, although I wish it was for a different reason,” Iryna said.
Reflecting on her time in Colorado, Larysa’s longing for her country is tempered by the knowledge that had she stayed, not only would their lives have been in danger, but she also would not have been able to get a colonoscopy until it was too late. Another harsh factor: The Ministry of Health-run cancer center in Kharkiv was destroyed.
“Estes Park is a beautiful place, very beautiful. But all my life is Ukraine. It is very hard for me. It is new, work is new, I have not good English, I miss all my friends,” Larysa said. “It is not easy for us to live away. Every day my mom asks: ‘When can we go back?’ She dreams of going back.”
So far, Larysa’s flat has not been destroyed — as far as she knows. But it’s much too dangerous to return to Ukraine now.
So, in the meantime, she has a busy, full life in Colorado. She works at the deli, cleans houses, takes English lessons, spends time with family, relishes moments with her 11-year-old granddaughter Angelina, and loves to bike, hike and walk in the shadow of the mountains.
“I meet American people, and I want to say: ‘Thank you so much! I appreciate all you do for us.’ I think all Ukrainian people appreciate it, and many more countries support us … so many help us. I think Russian government and some of its people can’t understand what the rest of the world knows – this war is not good.”