Chemotherapy can do more harm than good for final-stage cancer patients

It’s often said that family members shy away from offering enough treatment to dying patients thinking about monetary losses. A new study has revealed that at least for cancer there’s a medical reason for doing so. According to the said study, chemotherapy is incapable of improving the quality of life of any dying patient. In fact, researchers found that the terminal cancer patients who had the best physical condition before the study began experienced decline in their quality of life after receiving chemotherapy.

Holly Prigerson, the director of Weill Cornell Medical College’s Center for Research on End-of-Life Care, said that oncologists end up giving patients chemotherapy by default if they find them fit enough to tolerate another session of the treatment.

According to Prigerson, there’s a common perception that there’s nothing bad about trying. He said that this new study is special as this is one of the first to show that chemotherapy can be harmful for some cancer patients.


During the study, researchers examined cases of as many as 312 individuals suffering from progressive cancers. They started following the patients’ conditions from the time when their cancer had already spread significantly till they died. The study found that chemotherapy administered to these dying patients was palliative and couldn’t make any difference in their survival.

Fifty percent of these terminally ill patients were given chemotherapies when the study began. On average, they lived for another four months. A caregiver was appointed to assess the quality of life of these patients during the last week before death. Quite surprisingly, it was found that the nine patients who were asymptomatic before the study began, underwent chemotherapy, and had much lower quality of life during their final days.

Prigerson said that if a terminally ill patient is given toxic chemotherapy, he or she will automatically start feeling bad.

According to guidelines set by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, palliative chemotherapy should be given only to patients having solid tumors and are not disabled by the disease. Prigerson believes that the findings of this new study will help in raising questions regarding the appropriateness of such recommendations.

To read the entire study, visit the website of the widely read journal JAMA Oncology. The study was published there on June 23.