Dear Carol: There’s probably no right answer to what I’m asking but I felt the need to write just for comfort. My mother died when I was in my teens, so Dad has been the only parent that I’ve had for more than 20 years. I have no siblings. Dad’s now in his 70s and has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He’s beaten both melanoma and lung cancer in the past, but he tells me that this cancer should be slow-growing and that he’ll probably die before it’s a problem so he doesn’t want to treat it. I want him to go full-on with every treatment possible. I watched both of my parents fight cancer, so I know that it’s horrible to go through treatment, but I don’t want to lose him! How do I accept that fact that he’s taking this route? — LM.
Dear LM: My heart goes out to you. Losing your mom when you were so young and your resulting extra closeness with your dad has to make this very tough news for you to bear.
For several decades, most likely starting with the successes brought on by antibiotics and other advances in modern medicine, the general attitude of the medical community was that no matter what, all illness must be fought. Now, with more understanding that quality of life is a complicated concept, their advice is becoming more nuanced.
Most doctors will tell older patients that treatment options, including opting out of treatment, should take into consideration unique health concerns as well as personal choice. A 70-year-old in great health may opt for cancer treatment because there’s a reasonable expectation that this person will be able to live a fulfilling life for a significant number of years after treatment ends. A person of the same age who is in less-vigorous health may find that the rigors of cancer treatment are simply not worth the fight because even if they get through it, their quality of life would likely be poor.
It seems that your dad and his doctor have decided on the second approach. It is, to many, incredibly painful to lose a parent no matter what their age, LM, and your history of losing your mom so young makes this even harder for you than for most people.
Still, I believe that you want the best for your dad and that part of you understands his feeling that he's had enough of fighting cancer. He just wants to live out his life in peace. You could ask your dad if you can go with him to the doctor and have the doctor explain their joint thinking to you. Hearing it straight from a medical person can often help with acceptance.
You might, also, want to research palliative care, and even hospice, since having that foundation will help you understand that your dad isn't giving up. He's just taking an alternate route and there is a plan for the future should he need it.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.