“Ask a Priest: Would Forgoing Treatment for Cancer Be Suicide?”

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Q: Without going into great detail, I have, at this point, most likely a treatable, or manageable, cancer. However, I am so tired of dealing with it, and seeing no hope for my future, with or without the cancer, that I just want to let it take its course. My concern is for my children and my soul. Is it considered suicide to not get treatment? It just seems such a waste of the little assets I have left to try to save a life with such a bleak future. Thank you for your time. -D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I am sorry to hear about your cancer. But your lack of desire for life is even more saddening.

It is important, first and foremost, to gauge your life, not in terms of the cancer, but in terms of your identity. You are a beloved son of God. You are a father with children to love. Your life has meaning, even if it has severe difficulties.

From a moral standpoint, we should seek and use any ordinary means to protect our health and sustain our lives. Our lives are a gift, of which we are stewards.

Where care is optional is when it involves extraordinary means. Extraordinary in this sense means something that is overly expensive or something that is such a burden as to make life unbearable — a kind of a prolongation of death rather than a prolongation of life.

Regarding extraordinary means, the Catechism says in its section on euthanasia, in No. 2278:

“Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.”

(See here for more reading.)

Perhaps what would help is to seek out a spiritual director or priest or solid counselor. It is easy to become discouraged in the face of serious illness. You need someone who can give you perspective and objectivity about your situation. You might be dealing with depression that requires professional attention.

Above all, you need to see meaning in your suffering. You can unite your suffering with that of Christ on the cross. This is how suffering takes on a redemptive quality. We can suffer more easily when we see a reason for it. This is what Jesus did on the cross: He showed that suffering can have meaning and that it can help others. Perhaps you can offer up your cancer for your children, that they all make it to heaven.

For more reading you might find Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense Out of Suffering helpful.

You might also consider looking at a few of our online Retreat Guides, such as Troubled Hearts.

Also, A Mother’s Tears has a whole conference on the meaning of suffering and of “offering up” our sorrows.

I hope some of this helps. Count on being included in one of my Mass intentions.

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