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Staying alive. Cancer patients can't put off their deaths for a holiday.

The Grinch Who Stole Grandma

When an 80-year old granny breathes her last breath on December 26, it's tempting to think she mustered all her remaining willpower to have one last Christmas. But new research suggests such timing is just coincidence. Dying cancer patients give up their ghosts just as frequently before holidays and birthdays as after, a new study shows.

The anecdotes abound: People in nursing homes hold out for that one last birthday. Elderly Chinese women delay death until the full moon. And some researchers have found a decrease in the number of deaths of as large as 30% before major holidays, followed by a rise of 30% afterward, suggesting that people somehow fight off the inevitable until after the fun. Biostatisticians Donn Young and Erinn Hade of Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus looked at people who knew they were dying--terminal cancer patients--to see if such a trend exists. Unlike other chronic conditions, death by cancer does not follow a seasonal pattern.

The researchers examined the death certificates of almost 1.3 million Ohioans issued between 1989 and 2000 and found 309,000 who died of cancer. They then compared their dates of death with three major events' on most Americans' calendars: the patients' birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. There was no significant decrease of deaths in the week before the big holidays, nor a surge afterward. Indeed, for some subpopulations, the researchers found hints of a trend in the opposite direction, they report in the 22/29 December Journal of the American Medical Association. "This is the ultimate Grinch paper," says Young. "Not only does Santa not exist, but people die on Christmas day."

The research suggests that past studies showing that people can keep the Grim Reaper from visiting over the holidays have methodological flaws, says economist Gary Smith of Pomona College, California. "This paper is the first to look at cancer and is certainly the largest" study of its kind, he says. And as to postponing death: "There seems to be a basis for anecdotal evidence, but when you look at the data, [the proof] is not there." Not even in the Christmas pudding.

Related sites
Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center
Poetry: Death's Postponement
Abstract of Young and Hade's JAMA paper