How can we motivate my father to recover from radiation treatment?

1 answer | Last updated: Oct 01, 2016
Toogos asked...

My father recently under went radiation treatment for cancer. He had a softball size tumor removed from his leg prior to the treatment. He went through 29 treatments and had 8 more to go and he quit due to the extreme fatigue that can be associated with radiation. He is 86 and appears to have given up.

Although my mother and I have discussed at length with him of what he needs to do to start feeling better. From a lot of research I have done there are things he needs to do, but he just sits and complains how bad he feels and does nothing to try to recover.

He has almost stopped eating resulting in a large weight loss and he refuses outside aid, non-medical home care services, to help him with personal hygiene and the like as he has with my offering. My mother is too small and frail to help him as well.

My question is what can we do to get him to see what he is doing to himself and start to do the things to help him recover? I do realize that recovery from radiation can be hard and long, but the patient has to do things to help.

Thanks in advice for any suggestions.


Expert Answers

Bonnie Bajorek Daneker is author and creator of the The Compassionate Caregiver's Series, which includes "The Compassionate Caregiver's Guide to Caring for Someone with Cancer," "The Journey of Grief," "Handbook on Hospice and Palliative Care," and other titles on cancer diagnosis and end of life. She speaks regularly at cancer research and support functions, including PANCAN and Cancer Survivor's Network. She is a former member of the Executive Committee of the CSN at St. Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta and the Georgia Chapter of the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

Hello Steve, It is noble of you to want to continue life with your father, and I applaud you for seeking answers to such a challenging circumstance.

It's clear from your message that he doesn't want to fight the disease any more: his decisions to discontinue treatment and nursing, as well as his reluctant to eat are important indicators of this. It is difficult, if not impossible, to change a patient's mind about care in an advanced case such as this.

That said, some families I have interviewed have found success in bringing in clergy, social services or other family members to talk the patient into other methods of treatment. Can you identify something that motivates him to live for? Is there someone besides your mother that can intervene for you? You could certainly try that, but I have to set your expectations that it may not work with him.

Instead, Steve, consider not fighting him on this -- you need to honor his wishes. He is the captain of his healthcare, you are the crew. He makes the decisions until he is unable to do so. At 86, he is likely to have many ailments associated with aging. He certainly is feeling the negative effects of the surgery and radiation -- those are hard to bounce back from, even in youth with otherwise perfect health. Plus, the afteraffects of radiation can stay with the body 20+ years.

I know this is tough to hear, but you need to give him the gift of comfort as he approaches his last days. With his permission, talk to the medical professionals about moving from curative care to palliative care. What you can do for him is make sure that his pain is managed and that you help him with any unresolved personal issues. Sometimes these situations can make you feel powerless, but investigating care options for him could give you something to focus on and him much better quality of life.

Also, consider taking your mom to a chaplain or social worker (many times they are free) to talk about anticipatory grieving. This is a very real emotion: anticipating great loss before it happens. It seems you two may be candidates, and the professional can give you tools to lesson the impact on both of you.

I will keep you and your family in my prayers. Good luck.