Despite tales to the contrary, a new study suggests that people dying of cancer can’t intentionally postpone death to survive through a holiday or birthday.

“Health care workers and others involved with patients dying of cancer commonly recall those who apparently held on to life and defied the odds by surviving a major holiday or significant event, only to apparently die immediately thereafter,” write researcher Donn C. Young, PhD, of The Ohio State University and colleagues.

But their analysis of more than 300,000 cancer deaths found no evidence that cancer patients are able to postpone their death to survive Christmas, Thanksgiving, or their own birthdays.

In their study, which appears in the Dec. 22/29 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers analyzed death certificates for more than 1.2 million people who died in Ohio from 1989 to 2000. Of those, more than 300,000 died of cancer.

Researchers measured the total number of cancer deaths in the week before and after Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the person’s birthday. They found no significant differences in the proportion of people who died in the week after the event compared with the week before.

“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,” write the researchers.

However, the study showed there was an increase in cancer death rates among blacks during the week before Thanksgiving, and women with cancer were more likely to die in the week before their birthday.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCE: Young, D. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Dec. 22/29, 2004; vol 292: pp 3012-3016.