Incapacity Planning Among Cancer Patients
The results of a recent study published in the American Medical Association Oncology Journal suggest that more patients with cancer are obtaining Continuing Powers of Attorney for Property than in the past. Approximately 74% of Americans facing cancer have a Power of Attorney for Property in place. However, while not considered statistically significant, the use of Powers of Attorney for Personal Care and frequency of discussion with respect to end-of-life preferences have actually become less prevalent in recent years, with rates of only 40% (down from 49% in 2000) and 60% (down from 68%), respectively.
Older studies have suggested that physicians should re-evaluate a patient’s mental capacity after significant changes in medication, infection, metabolic disturbances, or diagnosis with a new medical problem, including cancer diagnosis and treatment, which may contribute to changes to mental capacity. While mental capacity is time and task-specific and will require analysis on a case-by-case basis, memory and concentration problems are frequently linked to certain chemotherapy regimens. Some reports suggest that oncology patients may experience the same mental impairment that is often seen at increased rates within the aging population. Further, the cognitive difficulty that is often referred to as “chemo fog” is believed to become more debilitating with the intensity of the chemotherapy. Other cancer treatments, including radiation and surgery, are believed to be less likely to influence a patient’s mental capacity, but medications, such as narcotic painkillers, that may be used to address treatment side effects can nevertheless impact lucidity and the understanding of medical procedures to which the patient’s consent is required. Further, when cancer originates or metastasizes within the brain, neurological functioning may be more likely to become compromised, whether temporarily or for the long term.
The presence of powers of attorney within the cancer community according to the study conducted by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine does not differ greatly from the estimate of 71% of Canadians that have Powers of Attorney in place. Generally, it is a good idea to ensure that individuals of all ages take the time to consider an incapacity plan and to have Power of Attorney documents prepared. However, cancer patients may be more likely than others to have to make important decisions between different treatment options. In situations where diminished capacity may become a more likely scenario due to illness (or related treatment) or age, arrangements should be made to ensure that, if one becomes incapable of making important decisions him or herself, someone who can be trusted is authorized and prepared to do so on their behalf.
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