If your loved one refuses cancer treatment

There are people who choose not to get any cancer treatment. This can be very hard for loved ones who may not agree with this choice. But for the most part, people who are able to make decisions for themselves have the right to refuse any and all treatment. As someone who loves and supports the person with cancer, you may wonder why she or he would make this choice. Sometimes, the person has health problems that make cancer treatment harder or more risky. Others may feel that with their age and life history, it’s just “their time.” Sometimes, the person’s religious beliefs come into play. There are many different reasons not to get treatment.

It is OK to ask your loved one about their reasons for refusing cancer treatment. Even though the answer may be hard to hear, the choice to refuse treatment is the patient’s. Often, the reasons make sense and give you a better idea of what’s going on. It is also OK to tell the patient what you think. You may say something like, “I hadn’t thought about it that way, and I’m glad you shared your point of view with me.” Or, “I wish you would talk to a doctor about treatment options, but I will support your choice and help you through this time the best that I can.”

Even after a person refuses cancer treatment, loved ones will want to make sure that the person with cancer fully understands their options. They may ask the person to talk with a doctor about the decision and any possible treatments that may help. Some patients will agree to talk with the doctor, and others won’t. But loved ones shouldn’t be surprised if, after talking with a doctor, the person still refuses treatment. Again, this person has the right to feel this way, just as you have the right to feel the way you do. Try to see it from the point of view of the person with cancer, and continue to offer your support and friendship.

Palliative care can often help those people who are sure that they don’t want to be treated for cancer. Palliative care helps to keep people with cancer from having severe pain, nausea, or other symptoms, whether or not they are getting cancer treatment. And the person who refuses cancer care may still want to enter hospice. Hospice workers use palliative care so that symptoms can be controlled as the cancer runs its course. They also try to help the family and the patient make the most of the time they have left. A patient who is competent to make decisions may elect to refuse this care, too. If that happens, loved ones usually work with the situation as best they can, but should keep offering hospice and palliative care as an option. This can be especially crucial as the patient’s condition gets worse — the time may come when the family and loved ones cannot manage without help.