“Rather one more chemo than one less…”: Oncologists and Oncology Nurses’ Reasons for Aggressive Treatment of Young Adults with Advanced Cancer

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AbstractBackground.Empirical research demonstrates that there is a tendency to administer tumor‐directed therapy to patients with advanced cancer close to death, especially if they are young. The aim of this qualitative study was to understand oncologists’ treatment decisions and oncology nurses’ perception of these decisions in young adult patients and to investigate the extent to which young age was a factor in cancer treatment decisions.Materials and Methods.We conducted 29 face‐to‐face interviews with oncologists and oncology nurses at the Department of Hematology and Oncology at the University Hospital in Munich, Germany. The interviews were analyzed according to the grounded theory approach.Results.Oncologists and nurses reported that decisions about limiting cancer treatment with young adult patients are the most challenging and stressful in clinical practice. Apart from using young age as a proxy for patient’s medical fitness, oncologists’ decisions in favor of more aggressive treatment of younger patients were mainly guided by ethical reasons such as patient preferences and the perceptions of injustice associated with dying at a young age, as well as by psychological reasons, such as identification and emotional entanglement.Conclusion.“Struggling” together with the patient against the injustice of dying young for a longer lifetime is an important factor driving aggressive treatment in young adult patients. However, oncologists might run a risk of neglecting other ethical aspects, such as a principle of nonmaleficence, that might even result in life‐shortening adverse events.Implications for Practice.This study identifies two ethical and one psychological reasons for patients’ overtreatment: 1) patients’ preference for further treatment; 2) oncologists’ perception of un‐fairness of dying young; and 3) identification and emotional entanglement with patient. These findings emphasize the need for oncologists’ awareness of the reasons guiding their treatment decisions — a sole focus on patients’ preferences and on the fighting against the unfairness of dying young might lead to neglecting obligations of non‐maleficence. Self‐reflection, the balance of empathy and professional distance as well as timely end of life discussions and involvement of psycho‐oncologists are needed in the care of young cancer patients.

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