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Incurable Cancer

By Bruce A. Chabner, MD, Director of Clinical Research; Professor of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center; Harvard Medical School
Elizabeth Chabner Thompson, MD, MPH, Founder, BFFL Co

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Patient Education

Even in cases of incurable cancer, palliative or experimental therapy may improve quality and extent of life. But in many cases, physicians must resist the urge to administer a relatively ineffective chemotherapy drug. A better choice is to discuss the likely results of such treatments and to set realistic goals with the patient. A patient’s decision to forgo cancer treatment must be respected. Another alternative is the clinical trial, the risks and benefits of which deserve discussion.

Regardless of prognosis, quality of life in cancer patients may improve with nutritional support, effective pain management, other symptomatic palliative care, and psychiatric and social support of the patient and family. Above all, patients must know that the clinical team will remain involved and accessible for supportive care, regardless of the prognosis. Hospice or other related end-of-life care programs are important parts of cancer treatment. For more information pertaining to patients with incurable disease, see The Dying Patient.