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No evidence of terminal patients hanging on until after the holidays

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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Most doctors and nurses who treat people dying of cancer have noticed a striking phenomenon: frail patients who manage to postpone their deaths to get through a holiday, birthday or special event.

A handful of scientific studies over the years have supported that notion. Studies have found that deaths among Jewish patients rose after Passover, that deaths among elderly Christians increased after Christmas and that deaths among Chinese-American women peaked after a Harvest Moon Festival.

A new study analyzing the records of 1.3 million people, however, found no relationship between date of death and three major milestones: Christmas, Thanksgiving and patients' birthdays.

Researchers singled out the deaths of more than 300,000 cancer patients, because deaths from cancer are usually more predictable and less sudden than those from heart attacks, strokes or other ailments, according to the study. It is published in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.

The rate of death from cancer was the same throughout the year, the study shows.

Deaths generally were lowest during the summer and highest in early January, partly because deaths from the flu, pneumonia and even heart attacks and strokes tend to climb during cold weather, says Donn Young, one of the paper's authors and a research scientist at the Ohio State University Cancer Center.

When researchers adjusted their numbers to account for this seasonal variation, there was no increase in overall mortality after Christmas.

Researchers say the size of their study makes it carry more weight than earlier, smaller analyses. Scientists examined all death certificates from the Ohio Department of Health from 1989 to 2000. The study's authors acknowledge that they had no way to know the dates of weddings, anniversaries or other occasions that might have inspired patients to try to hang on, according to the study.

Other recent studies have found that willpower has little to do with survival. In February, Australian researchers published a study in the journal Cancer finding that cancer patients with ''positive attitudes'' lived no longer than those with more negative outlooks.

Julia Rowland, director of the Office of Cancer Survivorship at the National Cancer Institute, says scientists aren't good at predicting how long patients will survive. Other experts note that cancer patients can choose whether to eat, drink or take medication.

''There is this gut feeling that in some cases, important events keep people here,'' Rowland says. ''Having meaning or purpose for individuals may help people live longer.''

Young says his father died last summer of kidney failure, a week after his 88th birthday. The family decided to celebrate the birthday early in case his father didn't make it.

The most important lesson to take away from Young's study, he says, is that people shouldn't put off sharing time or showing their love for someone who is dying.

''It's wishful thinking to think that someone can hang on through the holidays,'' Young says. ''When it comes to death, you can't control it.''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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