Articles in the medical literature and lay press have supported a belief
that individuals, including those dying of cancer, can temporarily postpone
their death to survive a major holiday or other significant event, but results
and effects have been variable.
To determine whether, for the patient dying of cancer, a “death
takes a holiday” effect showing a reduction in deaths in the week before
a significant event was associated with Christmas, the US holiday of Thanksgiving,
or the date of the individual’s birthday.
Design, Setting, and Subjects
Analysis of death certificate data for all 1 269 474 persons
dying in Ohio from 1989-2000, including 309 221 persons dying with cancer
noted as the leading cause of death.
Main Outcome Measure
We measured the total number of cancer deaths in the 2 weeks centered
on the event of interest and the proportion of these deaths that occurred
in the week before the event to determine whether this proportion was significantly
different from 0.5 by using an exact binomial test.
The proportion of persons dying of cancer in the week before Christmas,
Thanksgiving, and the individual’s birthday was not significantly different
from the proportion dying in the week after the event (P = .52, .26, and .06, respectively). However, among black
individuals there was an increase in cancer deaths in the week before Thanksgiving
(P = .01), whereas women showed an increase
in cancer deaths in the week before their birthday (P = .05).
There was no statistically significant excess of deaths in the postevent week
in any subgroup.
We found no evidence, in contrast to previous studies, that cancer patients
are able to postpone their deaths to survive significant religious, social,
or personal events.