Teen Forced to Undergo Chemotherapy

by Rachel Schusteff

With an 85 percent chance of survival, seventeen year-old Cassandra C. decided that she did not want potentially life-saving chemotherapy to treat her Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After only two sessions, she ran away.   

When she came back, she again refused treatment, a decision supported by her mother. Her refusal of treatment alarmed doctors. Because Cassandra is only 17 (meaning she is a year away from being legally recognized as an adult), the Connecticut state government intervened and ruled against Cassandra’s refusal of treatment. She is now being forced to undergo chemotherapy and has been removed from her mother’s care.

For many people, a cancer diagnosis seems like a death sentence. With little hope, people turn to commonly used treatments like radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. None have proven 100 percent effective but, in most cases, they greatly increase a patient’s chance of survival. For Cassandra, however, there was a cost to this uplifting prognosis: she did not want to “put poison in [her] body” by undergoing chemotherapy.

To some degree, chemotherapy drugs can be considered poisonous, but the effects mainly impact the cancerous cells that the treatment aims to kill. Chemotherapy attempts to kill the cancer by targeting the actively dividing cells, a process that comes with side effects like hair loss, nausea, infection, anemia and fatigue. For most people, the benefit of being more likely to live would outweigh these symptoms. For Cassandra, though, her decision may have been about wanting control.

Being in control of her own body and deciding how she wanted to live could have been her way of trying to understand her diagnosis. “Everyone, including myself, should have the given right to say what you do or don't want to be done to their body,” she has stated.

This raises the question: What difference does one year make in a person’s maturity? Because Cassandra is seventeen and still falls under “infant laws,” the state is required to protect her from making harmful decisions.

The controversial nature of her case prompted its journey through all levels of state and federal court before it reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld previous rulings that Cassandra be forced to undergo chemotherapy at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. In addition, because the court believed her mother was helping Cassandra decline treatment—a refusal that the Court believed would ultimately kill her—all contact between the family members was prohibited.                   

Cassandra’s family appealed the case because they believed the “mature minor doctrine” applied to their situation. This doctrine states that minors who are capable of making their own decisions about their health care treatment should be able to do so in extraordinary cases.

However, because Cassandra ran away, an immature action on her part, the court would not treat her as an adult even though she is less than a year away from being able to make these decisions on her own.

Cassandra may be old enough to drive a car, to sign a legal document, to donate blood and to consent to sexual relationships.

But, she is still too young to vote, to buy a house and to make her own medical decisions.