BACKGROUND: Chemotherapy near the end of life is an issue frequently discussed nowadays. The concern is that chemotherapy could cause more harm than good in a palliative situation; this is even truer as the patient nears death. The objective of our study is to evaluate the aggressiveness of patient care near the end of life by determining how many cancer patients receive chemotherapy during their final weeks.
METHODS: In a retrospective analysis of patient charts, we investigated whether cancer patients had been treated with chemotherapy during the last four or two weeks of life. If they had, we looked at whether treatment was ongoing or newly initiated.
RESULTS: Out of the 119 cancer patients who died in our hospital over two years, 14 (11.7%) received chemotherapy during the last four weeks of life, nine of whom (7.6%) in the last two weeks of life. Treatment had been ongoing in six (5%) and newly initiated for eight (6.7%) within four weeks of death. Corresponding figures for the last two weeks of life were seven patients (5.9%) who continued previously prescribed treatment and two (1.7%) who were started on chemotherapy. Patients given chemotherapy during the last four weeks of life were significantly younger than those who were not (p = 0.003).
CONCLUSIONS: Cancer patient care in our hospital is not considered overly aggressive as only 7.6% of these patients receive chemotherapy within the last two weeks of life. To determine how aggressive care near the end of life really is, however, we suggest evaluating newly started chemotherapy alongside ongoing treatment. As the line between the effects (beneficience) and side effects (nonmaleficience) of chemotherapy is often very narrow, doctors and patients have to work together to find the best way of treading this fine line.