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Ann Oncol. 2013 Oct;24 Suppl 7:vii55-58. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdt262.

Ethical issues in the geriatric patient with advanced cancer 'living to the end'.

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  • Medical Ethics, University of Balamand, Saint George Hospital-UMC, Achrafieh, Beirut, Lebanon. mndaher@inco.com.ib


Cancer incidence will increase as the population ages; there will be a 50% increase in new cancer cases over the next 20 years, and the biggest rates of increase will occur in the developing world. Owing to technical advances in the care of critical illness, as it is the case in elderly people with advanced cancer, physicians, patients and families are often confronted with ambiguous circumstances in which medical advances may inadvertently prolong suffering and the dying process rather than bring healing and recovery. In this review of the ethical issues confronting physicians who care for patients with advanced life-limiting illnesses like cancer, a philosophical debate continues in the medical community regarding the rightness or wrongness of certain actions (e.g. physician-assisted death, euthanasia), while at the same time there is a strong desire to find a common ground for moral discourse that could guide medical decision-making in this difficult period in the lives of our patients. We will discuss how a good palliative care can be an alternative to these ethical dilemmas. Although some issues (e.g. the role of physician-assisted death in addressing suffering) remain very controversial, there is much common ground based on the application of the four major principles of medical ethics, no malfeasance, beneficence, autonomy and justice. Thus, the physician's primary commitment must always be the patient's welfare and best interests, whether the physician is treating illness or helping patients to cope with illness, disability and death. A key skill here is the communication of bad news and to negotiate a treatment plan that is acceptable to the patient, the family and the healthcare team. Attention to psychosocial issues demands involvement of the patients and their families as partners. Physicians should be sensitive to the range of psychosocial distress and social disruption common to dying patients and their families. Spiritual issues often come to the fore. An interdisciplinary healthcare team can help in these areas. The goals of this review are to raise the awareness of doctors, nurses and other members of the healthcare team to the important ethical issues that must be addressed in providing medical care to elderly patients with advanced cancer; and also to encourage members of the healthcare team to take the ethical issues seriously so that we can improve the circumstances of a vulnerable group of patients-the elderly patients with cancer.

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