When to give up: Treatment or comfort for late-stage cancer?

Dr. Ronald C. Chen, of UNC Lineberger, was recently featured by the Associated Press for his research on end-of-life treatment in cancer patients younger than 65 with metastatic disease. Read the story and watch the video.

CHICAGO (AP) — Two months before Joe Clark died of colon cancer at age 31, a doctor gently told him it was time to stop treatment.

He had suffered through more than a year of chemotherapy that produced painful sores in his mouth, last-ditch major abdominal surgery had left behind excruciating scar tissue, and hope had dried up. But the end of treatment had a surprise effect on Clark and his wife.

"It was a whole new way of thinking to wrap our minds around," his widow, Amanda Evans-Clark recalled. No more "fight mode," she said. "We finally felt like we were allowed to live."

When to stop aggressive treatment is one of the most wrenching decisions in cancer care. Medical guidelines say dying cancer patients shouldn't get harsh and painful treatment, but new research suggests it happens almost all of the time.

During their last month alive, three out four cancer patients younger than 65 got too-aggressive treatment and only a handful got comfort-based hospice care instead, according to the recent study.

There are many reasons why, but one of them is this, said University of Chicago palliative care specialist Dr. Monica Malec: "There's nearly nothing harder than being faced with a patient who's begging you not to give up on them."

Dying patients and their families are sometimes in denial about their illness, and sometimes don't understand the limitations of medical treatment, the researchers and other specialists say.

Those misunderstandings can often be avoided if doctors begin end-of-life conversations early in the process of treating patients whose cancers are likely to be deadly. But those talks often never happen, Malec said, or they don't happen until the situation has progressed to crisis, because they're just too difficult.

The new study is an analysis of health claims data involving more than 28,000 cancer patients who died between 2007 and 2014. Their end-of-life treatment included hospitalizations, chemotherapy and invasive procedures. Fewer than one in five patients received hospice care.

"There are hundreds if not thousands who undergo too much therapy and too much suffering for every one person that we have who ends up having a miracle," said Dr. Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer.

The study was presented Monday in Chicago at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting.

Dr. Ronald Chen, the study's lead author and a cancer specialist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said the decision is still a struggle, even when he knows hospice might be the right choice. "If I can offer chemotherapy or if I can offer radiation treatment, then I'm not giving up hope," he said.

Read the full story.

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