Talking About Death with Terminally-Ill Patients

By Britney Glaser - bio | email

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - Talking about death can be difficult.  But for people with terminal illness, it may be critically important.

Robyn Farrell lost her husband, Bob, to cancer in 2007.  The parents of three children, they were married for 16 years.  "He was my best friend," says Farrell, "he was everything, and so there's a huge void in our family."

Bob's last days were spent with family at home, not at a hospital, a decision made after what are called "end of life" conversations.  Medical Oncologist Alexi Wright and her colleagues studied 330 terminally ill cancer patients to learn more about such end of life discussions.

"An end of life conversation is when a patient and doctor talk about how long the patient has to live," says Dr. Wright, "what their options are, and what kind of care they want to receive in their final week of life."

At issue: whether a patient wants doctors to use life-saving measures during his or her last days.  "Whether people want to be on breathing machines," says Dr. Wright, "whether they want to undergo a resuscitation if their heart would stop, whether they want to receive artificial nutrition or antibiotics."

The study appears this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It compared patients who did - and did not - report having end of life discussions.  In their last week of life, the patients who did were:

*three times less likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit
*four times less likely to be put on a breathing machine
*six times less likely to be resuscitated.

"And their quality of life was significantly better," says Dr. Wright.  A better quality of life, during the last days of life.

The five-year study, called "Coping with Cancer," also found that patients' loved ones benefitted from those end of life discussions with a better quality of life six months after the death of a loved one.

*To read this study in its entirety, click here.