Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does Faith Lead Terminally Ill Patients to Approve Using "all Means Possible" to Preserve Life?

A recent study in The Journal of the American Medical Association seems to indicate that more religious patients approve of more aggressive means of treating cancer. This seems to be the case even when such treatment only offers a prolongation of suffering. Researchers expressed concerns that not only did such treatment prolong the suffering of the patient, it made coping for the bereaved at an inevitable passing (or so it seemed to be apparent when the patient was living) much more difficult.

Religious patients were also more likely to request "heroic" measures such as being placed on a ventilator, or a stomach tube during their final week of life. It would seem that religion would make death a more "peaceful" occurrence (if that is possible). Why would the faithful choose this path?
  1. Perhaps their faith makes them optimistic, even if the situation seems hopeless. They are holding out a hope that God will yet intervene and "heal" them.
  2. Along that same line, very religious folks may see sickness more as a test of faith than a path terminating in death.
  3. Perhaps the faith the religious hold on to gives them the strength they need to face a dismal quality of life and withstand heroic measures at the end.
  4. Maybe it is fear. We know from studies that much of religion does contain a "fear element." Is it possible that belief in an afterlife inhabited by a stern and exacting judge creates a desire to avoid facing that judge as long as possible?
  5. Is there some fear that they may have been wrong about it all? Being uncertain what the end holds, they wish to remain in the familiar as opposed to the unknown kingdom.
  6. Or... maybe it's all about sanctity of life-- that life must be preserved at all costs. Of course, there may be a fear element here as well.

Dr, Phelps, the author of the study expressed concern about the findings. Quoting Phelps, "We are worried because aggressive care, at least among cancer patients, is a difficult and burdensome treatment that medically doesn't usually provide a whole lot of benefit."

Yet, there is a caveat. We all probably know someone for whom experimental or "last ditch efforts" worked (I have a dear friend in that group-- I'm glad he went through it). Still, I think for all of us there is a basic fear of death-- the unknown. Is it just possible that religious myths added to strong faith does lead to a greater fear than the absence of those factors?

So, what would I do if I had to face that decision at some point in my own life? I really don't know. Not completely anyway. I have a living will. But, if "push came to shove?" What would I choose? What would any of us choose?

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