Battling Breast Cancer Amid Cyber Threats: Hanna’s Story

by | Jul 6, 2024

The cyber landscape is often seen as an intangible realm, a battleground confined to digital interactions. Yet, the recent ransomware attack by the Russian hacker group Qilin on Synnovis, a key pathology service provider for several of London’s largest hospitals, has brought to light the severe real-world implications of cyber warfare. The attack led to the cancellation of approximately 1,500 medical procedures, but perhaps no story illustrates its human cost more poignantly than that of Johanna Groothuizen, affectionately known as Hanna.

Hanna, a 36-year-old research culture manager at King’s College London, received a diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer in late 2023. This particularly aggressive cancer type is known for its rapid spread and high recurrence rate, necessitating swift and precise medical intervention. In the months that followed her diagnosis, Hanna underwent a strenuous course of chemotherapy, all while preparing for a crucial surgical procedure: a skin-sparing mastectomy coupled with immediate breast reconstruction. This surgery was slated for June 7, just four days after Qilin’s ransomware attack incapacitated Synnovis’s systems.

Leading up to her scheduled surgery, Hanna was repeatedly reassured that her procedure would proceed as planned. However, the attack’s aftermath rendered such assurances futile. On the eve of her surgery, Hanna faced a heart-wrenching decision: proceed with a simple mastectomy or delay the surgery until Synnovis’s systems were fully restored. The hospital staff, overwhelmed by the chaos inflicted by the cyberattack, deemed the reconstruction too perilous due to the compromised ability to support blood transfusions.

This decision weighed heavily on Hanna. The aggressive nature of her cancer and the looming threat of its spread left her with little choice but to opt for the simple mastectomy—a decision made under immense pressure and with scant time for reflection. The urgency was further exacerbated by the hospital’s critical shortage of blood reserves, prompting an emergency appeal for O-type blood donations just a week after the attack.

Hanna’s ordeal underscores the profound impact of cyberattacks on healthcare systems and the individuals who depend on them. Reflecting on her experience, Hanna expressed a mix of disbelief and resignation, stating, “I never thought it was going to be due to a cyberattack by Russian hackers. That was not something that I would have ever thought would happen.” Despite the gravity of her situation, Hanna maintained remarkable composure, even finding moments of humor amidst her predicament.

The attack on Synnovis not only disrupted medical procedures but also exposed glaring vulnerabilities in the UK’s public sector infrastructure. Hanna’s experience serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need for robust cybersecurity measures to safeguard critical healthcare services. Despite her ordeal, Hanna harbors no ill will towards the National Health Service (NHS) or the staff at St Thomas’ Hospital. She acknowledges the dedication and hard work of the healthcare professionals who treated her with care and empathy. However, she also recognizes the broader implications of the attack, advocating for increased funding and enhanced cybersecurity protocols to prevent future disruptions.

Hanna’s surgery was ultimately successful, and she is now back home with her children, preparing for additional treatments to ensure the complete eradication of her cancer. She remains hopeful about the possibility of breast reconstruction in the future, although it will be at least a year before that becomes a viable option.

The attack on Synnovis serves as a poignant reminder of the tangible consequences of cyber warfare. It has disrupted thousands of medical procedures, highlighting the critical need for resilient healthcare systems. As the UK government endeavors to meet its National Cyber Security Strategy goals, it is imperative that the lessons learned from this incident inform future efforts to protect essential public services.

For Hanna, the journey toward recovery continues, marked by resilience and a steadfast determination to overcome the dual challenges posed by her illness and the cyberattack. Her story exemplifies the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity and underscores the urgent necessity for enhanced cybersecurity in our increasingly digital world. The Synnovis attack is a clarion call for greater investment in securing our critical infrastructure, ensuring that patients like Hanna receive the uninterrupted care they desperately need.