Caregivers and cancer is an important topic for me because my mother died of cancer. At the time, treatment was relatively primitive and there was no hospice or palliative care. She had surgery and radiation, but neither was effective against her disease. She then had a number of months of wasting and intense suffering before she died.
Today, her cancer would probably kill her as well, but she would have had to endure chemotherapy along with surgery and radiation. The main benefit for her is that in 2012 she could have hospice.
In expressing my opinions on this matter I must point out that I am not a physician nor do I have any special training in medicine. I am not an expert, but I do consider myself a well-informed layperson.
I am disturbed by the efforts of the medical community, families, and caregivers to use all available resources to prolong the life of a cancer patient with a terminal diagnosis. The medical literature discusses these measures as a normal thing.
Patients, families, and caregivers are so influenced by this trend that many believe that patients with incurable cancer may be saved by chemotherapy. Incurable cancer can’t be cured, and genuine miracles are quite rare. Cancer kills. We want to live, and so do cancer patients. Hope is important in our lives, but so is realistic thinking.
Caregivers are faced with a terrible dilemma. We want to help our aging parent as much as we can. That means keeping them alive and happy. Finding that the loved one is facing death from cancer with no hope for recovery is, for many, not acceptable.
It becomes not a time for coming together as a family to provide love and comfort for a dying loved one, but a time for a losing battle against an implacable enemy-cancer. The allies in this battle are the oncologists who treat the cancer. The link is to a good Wikipedia article that explains the mission of oncology.
The point I want to make is that I have seen several instances where the treatment cured the cancer but killed the patient, an unfortunate side effect. The side effects of aggressive cancer treatment can be as horrible as the disease. It is also true that aggressive cancer treatment can add years to a person’s life, but always at a cost.
The dilemma is deciding if the price is worth paying. We have attitudes shaped by slogans like “Never Give Up”, obituaries saying the person “lost her heroic battle against cancer”. The common mindset is to fight.
Reinforcing the attitude to do everything is that many people today have no direct experience with death. What was once a common thing in life has become something that happens elsewhere or in a hospital instead of the bedroom upstairs. Thus, we end up fighting the unknown phenomenon of death. We fear death and are willing to do everything to ward it off, regardless of the cost to everyone involved, forgetting that we are all under a death sentence.
Awareness, acceptance, good information, prayer, an informed family, all can help in making the right decision for everyone involved.