If your loved one refuses cancer treatment

There are people who choose not to get any cancer treatment. This can be very hard for family and friends 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 cares about and supports the person with cancer, you may wonder why they would make this choice. Maybe the person has health problems that make cancer treatment harder or more risky. Maybe they 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 reasons why people choose to not get cancer treatment.

It’s 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 – no one else’s. Often, the reasons make sense and give you a better idea of what’s going on. It’s 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’ll support your choice and help you through this time the best that I can.”

Even after a person refuses cancer treatment, it’s important to make sure they fully understand their options. You may want to ask the person to talk with a doctor about the decision and whether any treatments might help. Some patients will agree to talk with a doctor, and others won’t. But don’t be surprised if, after talking with a doctor, the person still refuses treatment. Again, they have the right to make their own choices, 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.

Supportive care can help anyone with cancer – even those who are sure that they don’t want treatment for the cancer itself. Sometimes called palliative care, supportive care helps keep people with cancer from having severe pain, nausea, or other symptoms. It’s care that aims to treat symptoms, not cancer. It helps the person feel as good as possible for as long as possible.

The person who refuses cancer care may be open to hospice. Hospice workers give palliative or supportive 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 able to make their own decisions may choose to refuse this care, too. This can be hard on the family and loved ones, watching the person suffer while knowing that supportive care could ease the pain and other symptoms. If this happens, loved ones usually do the best they can, but should keep offering hospice and palliative care as an option. This care will be needed even more as the patient’s condition gets worse – the time may come when the family and loved ones cannot manage without help.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: February 5, 2015

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.