Purpose The value of chemotherapy for patients with cancer in the last weeks of life warrants examination. Late chemotherapy may not improve survival or quality of life but typically precludes hospice enrollment and may result in additional symptoms, increased use of other aggressive treatments, and worsening quality of life. Few studies have explored oncologists' rationales for administering chemotherapy near death. This study examines the self-reported factors that influence oncologists' decisions about late chemotherapy.
Methods In-depth individual interviews were conducted with 17 oncologists through a semistructured interview guide. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were coded and analyzed using conventional content analysis, a qualitative method that allows the detection and analysis of patterns in the data.
Results Clinical factors take priority in determining late chemotherapy decisions when clear treatment choices exist. When clinical factors are ambiguous, emotion becomes a highly salient influence. Oncologists view late chemotherapy to be patient driven and use it to palliate emotional distress and maintain patient hope even when physical benefit is unexpected. Oncologists experience unique and difficult challenges when caring for dying patients, including emotionally draining communication, overwhelming responsibility for life/death, limitations of oncology to heal, and prognostic uncertainty. These challenges are also eased by offering late chemotherapy.
Conclusion The findings reveal a nuanced understanding of why oncologists find it difficult to refuse chemotherapy treatment for patients near death. Optimal end-of-life treatment decisions require supportive interventions and system change, both of which must take into account the challenges oncologists face.