What to do when my spouse is refusing leukemia treatment?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My husband last week told me he has leukemia.

I was shocked, I cried, I looked for information on the illness and found some facts about it. I shared this information with him. He promptly told me that he would refuse all treatment. Other than crying and waiting, what else can I do?

Expert Answer

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.

When someone you love has leukemia and is refusing treatment, it's tough to understand, especially with the many treatment options that exist. 

You may feel powerless, but instead,  congratulate yourself for already being appropriately reactive. You are showing you care by gathering information and sharing it with him.

These are good first steps. You'll want him to make an educated decision, and you'll want to give him time to make it.  This is important, because he may change his mind when he sees his options. If he does, let him and support him the way he wants you to (doctor appointments, running errands, physically tending him, etc.).

If he doesn't change his mind -- and this is his decision, remember -- support him then too. In fact, he will need you more if this is the case (besides physical tending there will be tying up loose ends, resolving conflicts, planning for end of life). Many people find peace with a cancer diagnosis and view it as a release. You might consider having a conversation about this with him, which would help you to understand his position. 

In either instance, prepare yourself for what to expect by getting information on his specific case from his oncologist or nurse practitioner.

Remember, crying and waiting are often part of the process. You're not alone and I would recommend that you join a group to help you talk about it. The Leukemia-Lymphoma Team in Training group is wonderful. Take a look at: http://www.teamintraining.org/. Or, consider a member of the clergy, who usually have wonderful listening abilities. Good luck.