Religious Cancer Patients Tend to Seek Life-Prolonging Care

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Cancer care and religion

Religious patients dying from cancer are more accepting of intensive interventions that prolong life, according to the results of a new study. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that highly religious cancer patients receive more aggressive medical treatment at end-of-life than those who do not practice prayer, meditation and engage in religious study.

Measures that prolong life include mechanical ventilation and CPR. Though religion plays a major role in coping with cancer, patients with cancer in the last week of life were found to be three time more likely to ask for life-prolonging medical care when compared to less religious patients with cancer. In addition, religious cancer patients often ignored living wills, or designation of healthcare power of attorney.

The reasons that life-prolonging care is more prevalent among cancer patients who use religion to cope are somewhat baffling to researchers. Holly G. Prigerson, PhD, of Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and study author suggests “Refusing some of these very aggressive medical interventions may be seen as giving up on the possibility that God might intervene.".

The study used questionnaires to evaluate religious coping among cancer patients. One in three agreed with a statement saying, "It is the most important thing that keeps me going," when asked about religion. More than half prayer daily, meditated, and studied religion. More religious cancer patients desired mechanical ventilation in their last week of life (11%) and CPR (7.4%). Comparably, only 3.6% of non-religious cancer patients desired artificial breathing and only 1.8%, desired CPR to prolong life.

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Dr. Prigerson says, "Beyond the significance of religious faith in coping with the emotional challenge of incurable cancer, it is important to recognize how religious coping factors into extremely difficult decisions confronting patients as their cancer progresses and death appears imminent. Beyond turning to doctors for advice, patients often look to God for guidance in these times of crisis."

The researchers plan to perform more studies about the role of religion as it affects wishes for life-prolonging medical care in patients who are dying.

The study shows that it is important for physicians to understand the religious beliefs of cancer patients. Dr. Prigerson says, "A greater understanding of the basis of patients' medical choices can go a long way toward achieving shared goals of care.”

Religion seems to play an important role in how medical care is delivered, especially in the face of a terminal illness such as cancer.