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When a Cancer Patient Says "No" to Treatment

Updated: Jul 2, 2019


Cancer, once thought to be a death sentence, can be treated, but never cured, according to experts. They always refer to it as "in remission" which doesn't speak too well for the future of the patient who may feel they have a ticking time bomb in themself. The anxiety it brings on may interfere with their immune system and who is to say that this "watchful waiting" for any cancer to emerge hasn't caused it to return? No clear-cut answers there.

But, despite all the reassurances that cancer is treatable, suppose a cancer patient indicates they don't wish treatment? How is that greeted? Members of the family and even the medical community


may protest that this is unreasonable, selfish, foolish and the whole ball of wax of negative statements is thrown at them. Of course, it's all done in the hope that they will agree to the treatments, no matter how aggressive, uncomfortable, or debilitating in terms of their quality of life.

I once knew an older, retired physician who had developed prostate cancer and he refused treatment. As he told me, "I'll be dead before prostate cancer ever kills me." His children didn't feel the same as he and they hammered away at him for over two years until he relented. He went for treatment, but we lost touch and I don't know how it turned out.

Another physician told me that he had lunch with two famous entertainers and all of them had prostate cancer. One was receiving treatment, the other two were involved in "watchful waiting."

Don't we owe that person with cancer the right to say they can refuse to suffer through daily uncontrollable vomiting, their inability to get up from bed, their body wasting away despite the treatments meant to "save" them? Who has a right to insist, possibly in their own self-interest, that this person persist through this diminished quality of life and daily unpleasantness? True, not all cancer treatment is as unsettling as I've just depicted it.

What are we asking when we refuse to see their point of view? Do we deny cancer patients the right to determine what they want? Is their life our's to determine and we have a right to sentence anyone to suffering of any type?

The final dignity anyone has is to decide what they will endure and, if they endure it, what will they have? Giving someone treatment to prolong their life two-four months must be measured against what that life will be.

Sitting for hours in treatment facilities or getting infusions at home may be tolerable to some because it will allow them time to interact with those who are meaningful in their life and with whom they have something to discuss. For others, there is no reason for these treatments and they do not wish them.

None of us want to lose our loved ones. But what is love if it isn't in the service of showing someone how much we care for them that we will let them go? Who is being selfish here?

Our family went through this more than once and, in our case, each time, the patient made the decision. It wasn't our life, but their life that was being shortened. No, we didn't want to lose them and we still cry when we think of them, especially on the anniversaries of their deaths, but we know it was the right thing to

do. There are no regrets about the actions.


Another year is ending and for us, it is another year without several members who we cherished. Time makes it a bit less painful, but the hole in our hearts will never heal.

#cancertreatment #cancer #refusaloftreatment #selfishness #lifedecisions

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DR. PATRICIA A. FARRELL