Continued from Yesterday
"Nobody had really sat down with them about what his choices are and what the options were," said Morrison, who became his doctor.
About a year later, Felker withdrew his own feeding tube, and "it enabled us to go out and have a wonderful evening at a jazz club two nights before he died" in July 2008, Sheehy said.
Doctors can't predict how soon a patient will die, but they usually know when an illness has become incurable. Even then, many of them practice "exhaustion medicine" -- treating until there are no more options left to try, said Dr. Martha Twaddle, chief medical officer of Midwest Palliative & Hospice Care Center in suburban Chicago.
A stunning number of cancer patients get aggressive care in the last days of their lives, she noted. One large study of Medicare records found that nearly 12 percent of cancer patients who died in 1999 received chemo in the last two weeks of life, up from nearly 10 percent in 1993.
Guidelines from an alliance of leading cancer centers say patients whose cancer has spread should stop getting anti-cancer medicine if sequential attempts with three different drugs fail to shrink their tumors. Yet according to IntrinsiQ, a cancer data analysis company, almost 20 percent of patients with colorectal cancer that has spread are on at least their fourth chemotherapy drug. The same goes for roughly 12 percent of patients with metastatic breast cancer, and for 12 percent of those with lung cancer. The analysis is based on more than 60,000 cancer patients.
Often, overtreating fatal illnesses happens because patients don't want to give up.