Is refusing cancer treatment a selfish act?

A fellow 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.

Expert Answer

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 health from the University of Michigan, and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current clinical practice focuses primarily on geriatrics. He has written and contributed to many articles and is frequently invited to speak on psychiatric topics, such as psychiatry and the law, depression, anxiety, dementia, and suicide risk and prevention.

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 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.