​17-Year-Old Removed From Parents' Custody After Refusing Chemo

teen refuses chemo

At what age would you trust your child to make a very serious medical decision for herself, one that has the potential to extend or drastically reduce her lifespan? It seems to me that every parent would have a different answer to that question, depending on all sorts of factors: the nature of the diagnosis, the severity of the treatment, the maturity of the child in question. It feels impossible to come up with a rule that applies toward everyone — and yet we do have those rules, as evidenced by the case of a 17-year-old girl whose fate is currently in the hands of the court system. She wants to refuse chemotherapy for her cancer, but the Department of Children and Families says the law requires her to receive this treatment.


The teenager, identified in court papers as Cassandra, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in September. For reasons that aren’t publicly detailed, she decided she didn't want to complete the prescribed treatment, and her mother supported her choice.

That’s when the Department of Children and Families stepped in, triggering a court hearing in which Cassandra's doctors testified as to the nature of her health.

According to the court summary, Cassandra underwent two chemotherapy treatments in November and then ran away from home and refused to continue. Ultimately, she was removed from her mother's home and placed in state custody so that the state could make medical decisions for her. She has been living at Connecticut Children's Medical Center and forced to undergo chemotherapy for about three weeks.

The state Department of Children and Families issued the following statement about the matter:

When experts -- such as the several physicians involved in this case -- tell us with certainty that a child will die as a result of leaving a decision up to a parent, then the Department has a responsibility to take action. Even if the decision might result in criticism, we have an obligation to protect the life of the child when there is consensus among the medical experts that action is required. Much of the improvements in Connecticut's child welfare system have come from working with families voluntarily to realize solutions to family challenges. Unfortunately that can't happen in every situation, especially when the life of a child is at stake.

The mother’s attorney states that despite the fatality rate associated with her cancer, Cassandra still has "the fundamental right to have a say about what goes on with your [her] body," adding that Cassandra was refusing treatment for “all the reasons you might imagine.”

We can’t know the specifics as to why Cassandra objected to chemo, but it’s not hard to make some educated guesses — the drug has many known side effects like hair loss, nausea, pain, and fertility changes.

Chemotherapy is not an easy choice by any stretch of the imagination, but it may be her best chance to beat her disease: Hartford Courant reported that Cassandra has an 80 to 85 percent chance of surviving her cancer if she continues with the prescribed treatment.

But is she old enough to decide the side effects aren’t worth the increased odds of survival? Nothing’s a guarantee, after all. Cassandra could still die from her cancer, or she could die in a car accident while being transported to the hospital. No court on Earth can promise our escape from mortality, and at 17, isn’t she mature enough to meet this awful disease in the manner of her choosing?

Cassandra and her mother (they’ve filed joint appeals) are asking the Connecticut Supreme court to grant her the mature minor doctrine, a policy which accepts that an unemancipated minor patient may possess the maturity to choose or reject a particular health care treatment. Cassandra’s lawyer says that no one is under any disillusions as to the potential outcome of her condition:

No one is disputing that it's very serious. (...) there's a good chance she could die if she doesn't (accept the treatment). None of us disagree about that.

I feel horribly torn about this story. If Cassandra were 7 years old, I don’t think I would question the state’s decision to overrule her and her mother’s wishes. At 17, though, it all gets much more confusing. I know *I* was an immature mess at 17, but I don’t know anything about this girl — perhaps she’s wise beyond her years. And just because it’s not a choice I think she should make, does that automatically mean she’s wrong for making it?

I’m very curious what you think: how would you rule if you were involved in Cassandra’s case?

Image via philandpam/Flickr

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