Are Aggressive Terminal Cancer Treatments Effective?

Russ Krengel Diseases

 After her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer, Jane Brody authorized radiation treatments even as his death approached. Her intentions were to help him live long enough to attend a concert of his songs, but after his death, she wondered if she had done the right thing.

Her story is not uncommon. Terminal cancer patients will continue to accept aggressive treatments like radiation and chemotherapy even though they know the disease won’t be cured through these processes. Patients hope to extend their lives, perhaps to reconcile with estranged friends and family, to get their affairs in order, or to simply have more time with their loved ones.

But are these aggressive treatments truly able to extend the life of terminal cancer patients? Furthermore, do aggressive treatments maintain the patient’s quality of life?

Risks Vs. Rewards of Aggressive Treatments

Aggressive treatments can have severe physical side effects, limiting the patient’s ability to engage in activities they enjoy or interact with loved ones. Some treatments will only extend the patient’s life for a few days or weeks.

Furthermore, depending on insurance coverage, the treatments may be extremely expensive, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. Considering the limited ability of these treatments to give the patient significantly more quality time with their family and friends, why would a patient choose to undergo these aggressive treatments?

Well, for some patients, the rewards of having a bit more time outweigh the physical and financial risks of these treatments. Fortunately, modern medicine has lessened the severe side effects of some of these treatments, and new therapies provide hope for patients to survive longer than ever before.

Some are hoping to make it to a milestone, such as a child’s graduation or wedding, and others are optimistically thinking new advancements will come along to either provide a cure or extend life for patients with their disease.

At some point, however, terminal cancer patients must confront the idea of stopping aggressive treatments. According to medical professionals, aggressive treatments like chemotherapy are rarely effective at doing more than prolonging life for sufferers of stage 4 cancer.

Knowing When to Stop Aggressive Treatments

It’s important for the patient and their loved ones to know when it’s time to stop aggressive cancer treatments. How will you know when it’s time to move forward with other treatment options?

Consider the Severity of the Cancer

Experts theorize certain cancers, when detected early enough, would probably not affect longevity at all, even if they were not treated; however, when cancers spread to other parts of the body and cause solid tumors, cancer is said to be terminal.

At this point, treatments are not used to cure, but to relieve symptoms and extend the lifespan. Medical professionals are divided on whether these treatments are effective, though.

Consider Physician Advice about the Effectiveness of Treatment

Patients can consult their doctors to find out what treatments will help them achieve their treatment goals. Some oncologists will suggest experimental treatments, but it’s up to the patient to decide if that’s the best path for them.

A 2015 study by researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College followed 312 terminal cancer patients projected to have 6 months or less to live. Around half of these patients decided to undergo aggressive cancer treatments. Among the healthiest patients at the beginning of the study, those who had chemotherapy had drastically reduced quality of life by the conclusion of the study.

Researchers theorized the chemotherapy provided little to no benefit for terminal cancer patients, based on these results.

Weigh the Costs of Treatment with the Patient’s Goals

For certain cancer drugs, cost can be a major concern. Depending on insurance coverage, patients may have to bear at least part of the cost. For example, pancreatic cancer patients might be prescribed a drug called Tarceva, which can cost $26,000 for a year’s treatment.

Ultimately, it’s up to the patient’s wishes to determine what treatments they receive and when they stop aggressive treatments.  

Quality of Life: The Importance of Listening to the Patient

Like Brody’s husband, some terminal cancer patients will decide aggressive treatments are not worthwhile for them.

This decision should be made by the patient, without outside influence from others, no matter how well-intentioned their input might be. If the patient decides the treatment is no longer as effective as they expected it to be, or the side effects are no longer outweighed by the benefits the treatment provides, they may choose to forego aggressive treatments in favor of palliative or hospice care.

Additionally, patients may choose to employ treatments like radiation or chemotherapy palliatively, to reduce pain. But again, the patient should determine when this treatment is no longer worthwhile for their quality of life.

Contact Kindful Hospice for More Information

To learn more about your options for chemotherapy and radiation treatments, or to find out what your alternatives might be, contact us at Kindful Hospice. Our team of medical professionals can help you learn more about cancer treatments that will help you achieve your goals.