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Refusing Treatment for Colon Cancer


Updated August 27, 2012

Refusing Treatment for Colon Cancer
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Question: Refusing Treatment for Colon Cancer

My dad has been diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer and he is refusing treatment. What can we do, as a family, to encourage him to get chemotherapy?


I understand what a painful situation this is for you and your family, but if your father is of sound mind, he has the right to refuse cancer treatment.

It seems fairly simple to most people: Get diagnosed with cancer, get treatment to stop said cancer. However, people can – and do – refuse treatment for a number of reasons including:

  • Religious or spiritual reasons
  • Fear of side effects or treatment itself
  • Financial concerns
  • Lack of desire to fight the cancer (accepted treatment earlier but is refusing for recurrence)

Addressing Your Concerns

It's okay, and actually encouraged, to sit and talk with your loved one. Whether it's your spouse, parent or adult child, you may be better able to accept their decision once you understand their reasoning. You can ask why the person is refusing treatment, but be careful to reserve your judgment and simply listen.

Discuss your concerns with your loved one, and let them know how you feel about their decision. Perhaps they do not know or understand the depth of your feelings. However, be careful not to force your opinion on the person fighting cancer – the end decision (treatment or no treatment) is ultimately up to that person.

Talking to the Doctor

Many families find a group visit to the doctor beneficial. He or she can explain the patient's choice as well as the consequences. This way, you can be sure that your loved one fully understands the ramifications of their decision. Based on the stage and grade of the cancer, the doctor can provide the survival rate for people with similar cancers and scenarios.

Calling a Family Meeting

Any life-limiting illness can elicit familial discord, but it may be even worse when the loved one is refusing a potentially life-saving treatment. Calling a family meeting is one way to discuss everyone's fears at once, and facilitates communication of factual information, as opposed to third-party hearsay.

Remember, this is not an "intervention" -- it is a family meeting used to discuss the patient's desires (not to fight them). To facilitate a positive experience for everyone consider:

  • Seeking approval from your loved one before arranging the meeting (he or she might prefer a one-on-one setting)
  • Choosing a date and time when all family or loved ones are available
  • Letting every person speak their mind, without rebuke
  • Having a professional present, such as a social worker, to help keep the meeting positive and non-confrontational
  • Also discussing his or her end of life plan (does he want pain medications? Does she want hospice?)

Adhering to Wishes

It may be one of the hardest things you'll do, but if your loved one has refused treatment (and they are mentally capable) you must adhere to those wishes. You may feel fear, aggression, or even anger over his or her decision. Health care professionals, such as bereavement counselors, anticipate these reactions and are trained to help you work through them. Some of the best bereavement work can occur as a family – while your loved one still has the energy to talk about these sensitive end of life topics.

Feeling Helpless

You may be feeling helpless or, worse yet, feeling as if you are standing by and "letting the person die", which are common concerns family members vocalize in these circumstances. You can still help your loved one in many ways. Provide emotional and physical support when your loved one needs it and keep honesty in every conversation. This will not be an easy journey for either of you, but you can help your loved one retain a sense of peace and dignity if he or she knows that you will continue to support him or her, and not withdraw because of anger or a disagreement.


American Cancer Society. (n.d.). If Your Loved One Refuses Cancer Treatment. Accessed August 27, 2012.

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Last Days of Life. Accessed August 26, 2012.

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