Evidence indicates cancer patients unable to intentionally postpone death for significant events

December 21, 2004

Contrary to previous reports, new research shows that cancer patients can not intentionally postpone death to survive for significant personal events such as Christmas, Thanksgiving or a birthday, according to a study in the December 22/29 issue of JAMA.

Health care workers and others involved with patients dying of cancer commonly recall those who apparently held on to life and defied the odds by surviving a major holiday or significant event, only to die immediately thereafter, according to background information in the article. Previous studies have noted an apparent dip or peak death pattern associated with significant religious and social events.

Donn C. Young, Ph.D., and Erinn M. Hade, M.S., of The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, used a large database to examine whether cancer deaths would demonstrate a dip or peak phenomenon around three events with potential religious, secular, and personal importance to the individual: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the individual's birthday. The researchers analyzed death certificate data for all 1,269,474 persons dying in Ohio from 1989-2000, including 309,221 persons dying with cancer noted as the leading cause of death. They measured the total number of cancer deaths in the 2 weeks centered on the event of interest, and the proportion of these deaths that occurred in the week before and the week after the event to determine whether these proportions were significantly different.

"For Christmas, Thanksgiving, or the individual's birthday, during the 12-year period there was no significant difference in the proportion of patients dying in the week after the event compared with the proportion dying in the week before the event," the researchers write. "Although overall birthday data showed no effect, women dying of cancer were more likely to die during the week before their birthday compared with the following week. Men showed no significant differences. In no subgroup was a statistically significant decrease of deaths observed in the week before the event."

"Although we cannot eliminate the possibility that a small number of dying cancer patients have the ability to control the timing of their death, the proportion would have to be much smaller than that previously reported," the authors write. " ... analysis of thousands of cancer deaths shows no pattern to support the concept that 'death takes a holiday.'"
(JAMA. 2004; 292: 3012-3016. Available post-embargo at www.jama.com)

Editor's Note: Dr. Young and Ms. Hade were supported by a cancer center support grant from the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, to The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The JAMA Network Journals

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