Is refusing cancer treatment a selfish act?

30 answers | Last updated: Apr 11, 2014
An anonymous caregiver asked...
If a person refuses treatment for cancer, is it being selfish to the rest of the family? I have seen many people die from it even after they took treatment and while they were taking treatment they suffered terribly.

Answers User - Ken Robbins, M.D. Expert
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Kenneth Robbins, M.D., is a senior medical editor of He is board certified in psychiatry and internal medicine, has a master's in public...
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A decision about whether to accept treatment for cancer is a personal matter, and there is no right or wrong. One must start by carefully weighing the potential risks of See also:
My father has colon cancer. What's the best way to deal with his angry outbursts?

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the treatment and the potential benefits of the treatment. The person with cancer must ultimately decide which choice is in their overall best interest. "Selfish" has a negative connotation, as though the person with cancer is inappropriately thinking of himself or herself instead of others. In this case one must think of oneself, because it is ultimately the person with cancer who will have to deal with the consequences. One of the factors to consider, however, in addition to the risks and benefits of the potential treatment, is the effect either decision will have on family members and close friends.

If you are the person with cancer and you are seriously considering a choice to refuse treatment, I would encourage you to speak with the people closest to you about it. It is possible they will feel hurt, believing you are choosing to die rather than to spend time with them. It would likely be very helpful to them if they understood how and why you made your decision, or what it is you are wrestling with. It is even possible such a discussion will give you a new perspective that leads you to change your mind. This is a situation where a mental health professional may be invaluable. Such a person could help facilitate a discussion between you and the people you are concerned about, and help you each to understand what the other is experiencing. Hopefully this will lead to you supporting each other through this very challenging time.


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octoman answered...

Well yes refusing treatment for cancer was selfish,first the poor surgeon he must have been upset when I was wheeled back out of the operating theatre. but it was his own fault he should not have told me fairy tales about keyhole the first place Seven years on I apologise. Kenneth Robbins see's it how it is .the surgeon should not have bypassed my choice,of his nasty treatment by painting a false rosy second opinion surgeon gave me the nasty facts.I declined his kind offer of stomach removal and liver tumour investigation


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A fellow caregiver answered...

No, it is not selfish to refuse cancer treatment since there are no guarantees or even high probabilities of remission. If anything, it is selfish of other people to try to force the person with cancer (possibly using guilt) to suffer through treatment for their sake.

My mom (a non-smoker all her life), was diagnosed at the end of February this year with lung cancer. She was told that without treatment she probably had 6-9 months to live and with treatment she probably had 2-2.5 years to live. After wrestling with the decision she reluctantly decided to undergo chemotherapy as suggested by the oncologist. She survived just under 5 months from time of diagnosis (not even the 6-9 months she probably would have had if she had refused treatment) and her quality of life was severely reduced by the treatment. She didn't die from the lung cancer but died instead from the treatment. Specifically, she was sent for a blood transfusion because she was too anaemic to be able to continue with chemotherapy. She had a bad reaction to the blood transfusion (a hemolytic transfusion reaction occurred as she had hemolytic anemia overlooked by the oncologist) and died several days after the transfusion. I'm certainly not saying that treatment isn't worthwhile. Of course, in many cases it saves lives but for many cancer patients (like my mom), quality of life is more important than quantity. For those people with young children and/or those who want to maximise their chance of staying alive (even if it requires hardship and suffering), it may make sense to them to undergo chemotherapy. However, it's a personal decision that must be made by the person with cancer. Obviously though, they must be given all relevant information first including treatment options, probabilities of success, possible side-effects of treatment and the likely course of the illness if treatment is declined. Personally, I was relieved that my mom decided to undergo some chemotherapy. However, she had decided that regardless of whether or not the treatment was working, she was only going to have one more cycle of treatment after the blood transfusion. At first she refused to even go for the blood transfusion. I really thought it was best for her to go for the transfusion and do one more cycle of chemo. But, even though the oncologist told me that my mom was being foolish and asked me to convince her to go, I said that it was my mom's decision and I would support her regardless of whether or not I thought the decision was a good one. The bottom line is, the person with cancer must be supported in their decisions even if other people don't agree with the decision. No-one knows what is going to happen one way or the other.


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octoman answered...

Yes My sister in law who was very perky when diagnosed with cancer the chemo soon finished her off two months,she lasted The usual,reason the cancer had spread.My cancer had spread. But the bodies own immune system can stop cancer spreading,given the chance.but chemo attacks the immune system and allows the cancer to spread My cancers that spread are now dead the main cancer is contained,at present. If a equal number of people were not treated as were treated we could compare but I only heard of person who refused treatment a oldtime film actress she lived too.Not like Farrah Fawcett,They removed her cancers she was tumour free then they gave the full works chemo and radiation,to makee sure. She then grew a whole new set of cancers and soon died.I felt Oh! if only she had settled,for being clear.But the medical profession believe it is better to over treat.No lawsuits then. yes I am cynical Seven years on death row,did it.I treat every day as my last, Positively! I love shareing my experiences. I do not advocate refusing treatment but dont just put your life in others hands Think, look at the odds.I have 12% chance of surviving for only five years with treatment.I have lived 7 years.without. It could, just be that I have a good immune system,but I have given it all the help I possibly can.


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greendeere40 answered...

I was operated on March 4th for colon cancer it was located in the large intestine. I came through with what the surgeon said they had gotten all of it. I did see an oncologist who wanted to push right away into chemo. After being told I probably wouldn't have to have any chemo, I was going to be pushed into this by the oncologist. I went for a second opinion with another oncologlist in a different facilty. He talked with my husband and I for over an hour. He stated the pros and cons and told me I would have to make up my own mind. Although I had help from family who are in health care profession I also had help from my pcp and read and looked into other ways of doing things naturally. Like eating better, doing supplements and excercising. Also having prayers and strength from family, friends and strangers. I have been keeping appointments with my personal doctor and the surgeon, and they have been also been supportive. They also have seen the progress I have gone through, like ie: looking healthier, stronger, perky and blood work coming back to normal. I grateful for all their support and help. I hope I can stay this way and not have to go through this again. I do not like what I see and hear about so called chemo or radiation treatments. I watched my neighbor die last February from cancer and the rediation which burnt her. Like the other blog that I read she didn't die from cancer but from the treatments. I agree you have to make up your own mind in different situations.


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octoman answered...

Oh greendeer40 thank you at last someone who has been there too, My father had cancer it did not kill him. but he got radiation poisoning How he suffered.before dying That said there are people who do not have problems with chemo or radiation treatment,but they seem to be a minority.


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octoman answered...

Just an after thought I never take any drugs at all no painkillers. I do anything that is known to help my immune,system.A side affect of this at near eighty.I wrenched my back lifting wifes electric trolly into the car.could not get out of my armchair,Next day it had improved I played then improved day by day,next I got tennis elbow useing shears to cut through the jungle that my garden had grown into.I ignored the pain(not recommened)and it has now gone away.thought do you think evolution or god could have designed such poor body as ours appears to be?my body that was useless.always breaking down hense cancer. properly treated is amazing my joints are great ,stomach great,,bowels great, How did we manage to evolve without Doctors?yes some did not and could have done with modern treatment.but this present generation are rattling with doctors pills.codeine can cause the headache you take to cure it ,and therefore it becomes addictive. yes I am looking down from my pinnacle of experience. sorry, if you have it flaunt it. is my motto.


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octoman answered...

I have a different slant on a cancer suffer being selfish I know surviving my cancer depends on remaining up beat.,no depression allowed. My disabled wife gets a better quality of life if she stays with her sister.who is a qualified care nurse,also they get on so well,laughing all the time. So I let her stay with her sister,after just a month my wife had lost over a stone in weight and the swelling of her feet and legs have gone down.but I missed her so much I could not bear she only goes on short visits now.but I know she would fare better with long stays.I have tried compensate with house renovations and trips out.but I still feel guilty. 11 sept I think my wife was a bit miffed at me saying "she can stay as long as she liked." I was being a martyr, and she thought I did not need her Now she ask,s can I stay a day longer,I reluctantly agree She seem's happier with that approach..


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octoman answered...

Welcome to the octoman site. It is a lonely place . Trouble with cancer so many people are dying from it,every day. The medical profession,have to be up beat . Come to us and be cured,they shout. the earlier we get you the better.Except with cancer it is very secretive,by the time it is found it is usually too late. My wife had no trouble,her precancerous were found. the operation caused so many after problems .But cancer never reared its ugly head far.


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An anonymous caregiver answered...

No, I do not think it is selfish. We are not the ones who will be injected with chemo or burned with radiation. We will not be wheeled in and out of operating rooms and stuck with needles. The person who has the disease must decide what they will endure. It is just not fair to make someone suffer this kind of pain, to make us feel better or so that we won't be "left behind."

I just lost someone who was diagnosed in 2004 and showed no symptoms until mid-2008. He opted to forego treatment. He knew with 2 cancers, it was unlikely all the chemo and radiation would extend his life very much, if at all. He'd been hospitalized for a year, as a child, and did not want to be in and out of hospitals again. Instead, he was a partyer and wanted to go out partying, amongst friends, which he did, up until the last 5 months. He died quietly home, like he wanted. Of course he was sad, he was not ready to die at all at 45, but he lived his final years the way he wanted and isn't that what matters, really? (He did not have small children. His 2 kids were 18 and 21).


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Jade1961 answered...

I am a 2 time cancer survivor. Neither time did I have chemotherapy or radiation due to the odds with each. The first cancer was Uterine/Ovarian I had a total Hysterectomy and oophorectomy, in layman's terms they removed my Uterus and ovaries. I did not receive any Radiation or Chemotherapy, it was offered to me however I refused as the odds of either one of them killing me were higher than them helping me. I have been free from that cancer for 17 years. One year later I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma & told that I had 18months to live. I was directed to get my affairs in order, find someone to raise my son & start Chemotherapy. My Son was 3 years old at the time. I went and got 3 different opinions all of them gave me a 60% chance of Chemotherapy killing me. I didn't take it. Instead, I am a Christian, I went to God. I got down on my knees and asked that he take the cancer away from me. When one prays for healing & chooses an alternative method to cure something like cancer, Doctors tend to fly off the handle ;-) As a Team Leader of a LIVESTRONG Army, a grassroots program of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, I decided this is MY life & I WILL Have it MY WAY!(taken from the Manifesto of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

I apologize for straying a bit but I felt that if you knew where I was "coming from" it would be much easier to understand my reasoning behind what I have to say.

Is it selfish to the family for a person to decide not to be treated for cancer. No! It is a persons right to have their life, just that ... THEIR LIFE. Whether it be short or long, ultimately we have no control over when our "time" is.

More families than not want their loved one to stay with them for as long as possible and may feel slighted that a person decides they don't want to be ill, burnt and possibly die from a treatment designed to possibly help the cancer go into remission.

Ours is not the only organization out here to support recently diagnosed cancer patients, their family & friends as well as survivors. Most of which have a mentality of allowing the patient to make decisions that they are comfortable with and helping the family cope with those decisions. This also brings into light the need for many legal documents. Things like Power of Attorney, Living wills, DNR's as well as assigning a Patient Health Advocate with durable powers of attorney for health care. Here are some better definitions of what I refer to above. "In some jurisdictions, a Durable Power of attorney can also be a Health Care Power of Attorney", an advance directive which empowers the attorney-in-fact (proxy) to make health-care decisions for the granter, up to and including terminating care and ending life supports that are keeping a critically and terminally ill patient alive. Health care decisions include the power to consent, refuse consent or withdraw consent to any type of medical care, treatment, service or procedure. DNR or Do Not Resuscitate order, this one basically speaks for itself but for those of you who would like it simplified; when a person signs a DNR it means that if their heart should stop and they should stop breathing they do not want brought back. This is a personal choice and needs to be made by the person who is terminally ill. Under most state laws the person in question must still be of sound mind. A living will is a written statement of a person's health care and medical wishes but does not appoint another person to make health care decisions. New York State has enacted a Health Care Proxy law that requires a separate document be prepared appointing one as your health care agent" ~ My attorney The latter varies from State to State and all of the above should be done through your attorney. However, there are many cancer non-profits who will help you so your paperwork is in order. Most Doctors offices, Hospitals and Cancer centers can help you with these forms. I hope I have helped in some small way. At the end of the day any cancer victim or terminally ill person had the right to decline any treatment they wish. It is not selfish ... it is THEIR life. LIVESTRONG Jade Please visit for help if you are in need, or would like to get involved. Jade


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An anonymous caregiver answered...

A most pertinent topic with interesting blog. At 66 years and in fine health, with two sons and four grandkids, I have made a decision never to have treatment for any life-threatening disease that may come my way.

My allocated time of three-score years and ten is nearing and my quality of life as an occasional smoker, a bloke who enjoys a daily beer, a respected dad and loved husband and grandfather, suggests I have been blessed.

I will not put myself or my family through the seemingly endlessness of treatment; the visits to hospitals and the entire set of difficult logistics just to prolong my life.

I have told my family this and they just laugh...'you'll outlive us, dad!'

But they do respect my wishes for a dignified in-control exit when the time comes. I am a veteran of the Vietnam War and decided three years ago to end all psychotherapy medication that put my mind into endless confusion. How wonderful after decades of treatment on behavioural matters to be able to think clearly and rationally and become a member of my family again.

Too often our problems are enshrined in the medico philosophy 'Iatrogenesis' which translates that many of our ailments are indeed doctor-caused. Too often the global medication industry persuades doctors to prescribe medication that detracts rather than adds to our quality of life.

The big question that flows from this topic long do we want to live if our quality of life is lessened by disease and its treatment?

At my age, so far so good. I have lost friends who never made their 22nd birthdays and so every day is a bonus.


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anna103333 answered...

I have went through kemo 3 years for 6months and that put my family through hell!!! so to say it is selfish not to do it again if the cancer has came back is absoulutly crazy!!! i will not ever put my family or me through kemo again!!!!! so be careful who u r calling selfish!!!!


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Qruzer answered...

I was just diagnosed 7 weeks ago with Multiple Myeloma. My choice is a deeply personal choice of strengthening my immune system, stop feeding the cancer and to detox my body. I have had interventions, oncologists doctors who refuse to talk to me about my path. My family has threatened to drive me directly to the hospital for chemo. If I hear one more person say to me, 'look at Steve Jobs'....

I'm a 54 year old male who refuses treatment because the protocols of treatment are barbaric to me. I've studied a nutritionally holistic approach that i must refuse to speak about out loud. I feel wonderful, lost 10 pounds because of my no sugar and high juicing.

I appreciate this blog, I've really had no where to speak...I'm being treated as a quack. People die from chemo everyday. People die from alternative choices. Cancer just plain kills. I want my body to be in charge not a pill.


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Landhage answered...

No, it is not selfish to refuse chemotherapy. I resent people who claims that a person is selfish for refusing chemotherapy. First of all, the person suffering from cancer is the one who has to deal with the pain, nausea, fatigue, and so many other side effects of the chemo. It's easy for the rest of us to sit on our asses and say "Don't leave us! It's selfish if you do!" In other words, we're neglecting the person's pain/suffering and we're secretly wanting him to prolong his misery just for the sake of us enjoying his presence for a bit longer? If a person chooses to reject chemotherapy and let nature run its course (by dying at a natural time), I say, all the power to him. I'd do the same thing. Screw what everyone else thinks. Wait until it happens to THEM and they'll realize how AWFUL it is to be puking 24/7 from the chemo treatments. Then they'll shut up and realize it is HELL. So, please, people, stop laying the guilt trip on others if they're suffering and choosing not to receive treatments for their own personal reasons.


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An anonymous caregiver answered...

"Selfish" is one of the most misunderstood and misused words in the English language. To be a cancer patient and have everyone in your life hope you'll have surgery and chemotherapy; which itself is a carcinogen, is to be on the receiving end of what selfish really is. If a loved one wants to see me go through that Hell, aren't they then, the selfish one(s)? We're ALL selfish. To be on this earth, taking up space, is selfish. The government and FDA have no interst in finding a cure; there's no money to be made from natural ingredients. Proper diet, certain supplements, changes in behaiour and thoughts, they all help the cancer patient. That's the route I've chosen and I'll never have my breast completely hacked off only to be replaced by an unreasonable facsimile. I sure as hell won't submit to chemotherapy, which itself causes cancer. Surgery cannot take out all the cancerous cells, in fact it loosens them so they then flow throughout your blood stream only to form a new type of cancer elsewhere in one's body. I've found a great book, it's called "A Good Enough Life." I recommend it to anyone who's facing this monster of a disease. The stories of the dying are contained within. I've seen my share of people go through traditional Western treatments and still, their cancer comes back. My aunt had breast cancer 3 times in 11 years. They're watching her now, worried about a 4th occurence. I've seen how helpful and curative their treatments are. We cancer patients need to stand up as a group and say a collective "NO!" Maybe, just maybe, then, the medical community will have to admit/confess that there are natural cures for this disease. They sure haven't made any headway in curing it.


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Jmonge answered...

I just joined so I could follow your hollistic paths. Food is thy medicine and medicine is thy food! I believe this whole heartedly! Please keep us updated on how you are doing. Juicing is a wonderful cure, hallelujah acres is a great website, h2o2 is worth researching.....there are many many others I could share! Blessing to all!


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Valley Girl answered...

I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year and had it operated on. Fortunately no chemo or radiation was required however I have decided, since I lived a long enough life (70), am a widow whose husband passed away 5 years ago, had a successful career and raised three wonderful children, that if cancer is diagnosed anywhere else whereby chemo is required that I will refuse treatment. My main objective would be to save what funds I have for my children and grandchildren instead of depleting what funds I have. I also do not wish to endure the pain of treatment (basically a wuss) and I feel I have lived a good life, travelled everywhere I have ever wanted to go, and want my children to inherit "more" rather than see me suffer and become my caretakers.


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Wendarling answered...

I went thro chemo and radiation, surgery for breast cancer. I found another lump, probably scar tissue. But it set me on a journey of thought. I can't do that again. Not to me, not to my family. I'm 56, I've had a great life. I'll see you at the gate!!! Am I selfish?? NO!!! It's my life to choose. We all die. I watched my Dad suffer and die from the chemo that was to help him live longer from lung cancer. It was a tragic lie. Never again for me. Bless you.


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I Hate Cancer answered...

No, I do not think refusing chemo and radiation treatments is being selfish. I just lost my father to cancer on the 3/19/2013. Last February he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. They could not find it on an x-ray but found the tumors on a c-scan of his lungs. He let the doctors perform a biopsy and when the results came back cancerous he chose to do the chemo treatments. The doctors told him he would have a better quality of life if he did the chemo. This was not true. My father suffered from the treatments and never got to have a good quality of life. Finally they said the cancer was in his his liver and that he had 3 months to live if he was lucky. The doctors told him there was nothing more they could do. He lived about a month and a half after they told him. I personally think it is a money racket after going through this with my father. The treatments are not cheap. My father had excellent heath insurance and I think the hospital tried to milk the insurance company for all it was worth. Basically he suffered and never got his quality of life. If we could do it all over again, I would have told him to get a second opinion and give it a few weeks before making a decision. Always seek a second opinion. Do not let the doctors do a biopsy until you get another C-scan at a different location. I think it would be best left undisturbed. Do another C-scan and have both results examined.


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PeteH answered...

I don't think it's selfish to refuse treatment for any disease, so long as the person making the decision is mentally competent to do so. Your body, your choice, right?

What I do find deeply offensive and upsetting is when families deliberately withhold the diagnosis from the person who has the disease. In my line of work, I see this quite often - "My mother will just give up if she knows she has cancer, so we have decided as a family not to tell her". It's a total disgrace to treat people so appallingly.

But if it's your cancer, and you want to treat yourself with a bizarre diet, magical water or prayer, then more power to you, and good luck. But don't be under any illusions - if diet worked, if apricot kernels worked, if alkaline water or homeopathy worked, then oncologists would use it.


KathyAE answered...

@PeteH, Thank you, I have been being treated for breast mets to the liver for 4 yrs, and I'm tired. I have recently started thinking of stopping my treatment. I have discussed this with some family members, and they are with me whatever I decide, one even telling me that "they are being selfish" for wanting me to keep trying different things. I agree with what you said about alternative treatment, while it may or may not work for some, I know if my oncologist thought it would work, she would tell me to do it. She is loving and caring, and blunt, because I have asked her to be. She said I will tell you when I think we are done, I know she doesn't want me to die. If all those natural things worked, well wouldn't all be healed? I think it is a very personal decision. One I plan to think more on.


An anonymous caregiver answered...

When is a person incapable of making a rational decision about this? If someone suffers from untreated depression and would rather die from the cancer than have treatment (assuming the cancer is treatable), is that still a decision that should be supported? Under this condition it is almost like not helping someone who is suicidal. I'm all for a rational decision to forego treatment, but I'm not sure a depressed person is in a position to make this decision rationally. Also, what should the person foregoing treatment expect from the caregiver?


jrk 57 answered...

I have hep c for 20 years and now cirrhosis for the last 9 years so Ive decided that I will not undergo any treatments ,I have seen three people in my family die of cancer and I will not go that way I am not depressed Just accepted the fact that I am dying ,iy;s ok Im Happy


Manya answered...

As a person who had major surgery for cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer) and then refused both chemo and radiation, I have to say that, so far, I don't regret that decision. It's been 16 months since my surgery now, and yes, the cancer has returned and spread, but I've been able to travel, spend time with my family and friends, and generally do whatever I want, without being tied to the hospital or feeling ill from side effects. My family doesn't have to watch me go through the rigors of treatment, either--only to die anyway. On the other hand, I have a friend with pancreatic cancer (which has similar grim survival odds), and he has chosen to undergo two different types of chemo, so far. Each of us respects the other's decision. It's different for every person, and I suggest that if you are ever faced with this choice, do the research, look at the odds, know what you're up against, get a second opinion, and please don't operate on blind faith or out of fear. Then do what your gut tells you.


Brutusesmom answered...

I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer 9 months ago. I had radiation on the primary tumor and then refused any further chemo because they could not guarantee it would help. Since I had seen 3 siblings and 1 mother all die from cancer despite the chemo, I declined it. I am treating my cancer holistically and my PET scan as of 2 weeks ago prove what I am doing is the right thing. Some of my cancer has decreased and some has stayed the same, not growing or becoming more active. The body can heal itself and it is done everyday. Read Radical Remission and learn how people around the world are healing themselves. I think chemo is the biggest scam in the world and millions of people are being told to take it when it fact it will do nothing to cure their cancer or extend their life. It's been shown, doing nothing will get you the same amount of time, maybe more and you'll be a lot happier and healthier for it.


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