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The Globe and Mail

It takes courage to ‘fight’ cancer; it takes the same to give in

Dr. Graham Cleghorn is seen in the emergency department at Sunnybrook Health Sciences centre in Toronto, Ontario Tuesday, November 19, 2013.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe's months-long series on the challenges facing Canadian hospitals. All of our published material has been reported with permission from staff.

I was standing in a hospital room when I overheard, just a few feet away, a man tell his wife he had had enough. He had decided to stop receiving cancer treatment and was ready for whatever fate had in store.

I've never met this couple before and don't know their names. I wasn't even in the room because of them – I was observing a housekeeper go through the painstaking process of cleaning the bed of a patient who had been sent home a few minutes earlier. But on the other side of a hospital curtain (which might give the illusion of privacy but, frankly, isn't fooling anyone), this couple was talking and I couldn't help but hear their private, pained discussion about the beginning of the end of one of their lives.

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The husband explained to his wife and the doctor who was standing nearby that he didn't see a point any more because no medication could cure him. He didn't want to drain the health care system with what would be a pointless case. His wife disagreed, trying to persuade him that treatment could help him in the short term and perhaps keep him around a bit longer.

I edged away from the curtain toward the door, but the conversation stuck with me.

Death might be many things, but predictable isn't one of them. Even when we think the end might be near, the actual event of a loved one's passing is often a shock. And despite what we say, we're rarely prepared for the feelings that come next.

As I listened to this couple on the other side of the curtain, I thought about the courage it takes to recognize when there is no point "fighting" any longer.

In our society, we often portray disease as evil and laud people who "battle" cancer and other illnesses. But those who choose to forego invasive or aggressive treatments that will do little – if anything – to prolong their lives or improve the quality of their lives surely aren't weak willed.

In fact, they're just the opposite.

Follow me on Twitter: @carlyweeks

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What are your thoughts? Would you continue treatment even if you believed it to be fruitless?

We want to hear about health care in your community: What works, what doesn't, and what you think we should do about it. Share your experiences – and ideas for change. Follow @Globe_Health, tweet with #thehospital or email to join the conversation.

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