A lymphoma diagnosis is a life-changing event that can alter the way you think about your future. Having cancer often brings life into perspective and may stir up issues you haven’t considered, such as how you want to be cared for if you are unable to make decisions regarding your health.
Many people struggle with advance care planning, such as creating a living will or filling out advance directives. However, properly planning for the future ensures that your health care wishes are fulfilled. Advance directives also give your loved ones guidance in the face of challenging end-of-life care or medical decisions. Familiarizing yourself with the process of designating a medical power of attorney (POA) agent will help you appoint the best person for this important role.
A medical POA, sometimes called a durable power of attorney for health care, is a legal document that gives another person the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to make them yourself. In the United States, specific laws vary from state to state for setting up a medical POA. The person you choose may be referred to as your:
A medical POA agent must follow any predetermined guidelines that you specify. However, they can make significant decisions, including whether to keep you on life support or discontinue medical treatment. Your agent may also make organ donation decisions if you haven’t already specified your wishes.
Entrusting another person to act as your advocate will help your oncology team and loved ones navigate challenging circumstances. You’ll want to be sure to inform the person you choose as your agent so they can be prepared and available if called upon. Let your loved ones know your reasoning for selecting this person, and encourage them to support your agent in fulfilling their decision-making responsibilities.
Medical POA carries minimal risk for you because it doesn’t come into play unless you no longer have the mental capacity to make decisions or unless you lose the ability to communicate. A doctor must verify your status before your agent can intervene. You can set limits on the types of medical decisions your agent can make for you, and the agent must follow any instructions you’ve provided. If a court believes that your health care agent is not acting in your best interests or in line with your desires, the right of medical POA can be revoked.
Members of MyLymphomaTeam have shared sentiments about focusing on the present rather than worrying about the future, such as one member who wrote, “I got up not thinking about the future. Just enjoying the day.” Although not thinking too far in the future can be helpful at times, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan ahead.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you don’t choose a medical POA agent, one may be chosen for you. The following people are legally authorized to make decisions about your health care (in the order listed) if you’re incapacitated:
If you would like to prevent any of the above people from having power over your medical care, it’s important to put paperwork in place to specify that wish. Designating a medical POA agent ensures that your preferred person or people will be in charge of communicating with your health care providers.
State laws may vary, but in general, a person must meet a few criteria before that person can be given medical POA. For instance, your agent must be older than 18 years of age or legally emancipated. The person can’t be your health care provider or your residential care provider (if you live in a facility). The person should also not be related to your health care or residential care provider.
Examples of the people who are typically appointed to be health care agents include:
There’s a lot to consider before signing a medical POA document, including whether you feel the other person is up to the task. Just because someone cares for you doesn’t mean they’re the best choice to act as your representative.
Ideally, you should choose a medical POA agent before your health comes into question or while you still feel well enough to sign the directive forms. Because circumstances may change over time, you have the right to pick a new agent or remove an agent’s rights as long as you’re still considered mentally capable. For example, a spouse who was given the POA may have this right taken away if a divorce occurs. Be sure to read through the terms or meet with a lawyer or social worker who can help explain the ins and outs of your medical POA document before signing the papers.
For most parts of the United States, there’s a simplified form you can use to designate your health care agent. This bare-bones multistate form is valid in every state except Ohio, New Hampshire, Texas, and Wisconsin. Each of these states has its own mandatory disclosure statement.
You should be able to find medical POA forms on your state government’s website. Most states don’t require a notary, but typically two witnesses must be present to certify that you signed the forms. Different states have specific rules on who can serve as a witness, so be sure to read the terms carefully or seek legal counsel to help you.
While selecting a medical power of attorney agent, you may also want to put other legal documents in place that define the type of medical treatment you want, how your bank accounts will be managed, and who will care for your children (if applicable). Ask your oncology provider for a referral to a social worker or lawyer who can help you with the process sooner rather than later. Taking these steps isn’t just important for people with lymphoma but also for any adult who wants a say in their future care.
On MyLymphomaTeam, the social network for people with lymphoma, you can connect with more than 10,000 other people living with this condition. Members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lymphoma.
Do you have experience with the medical power of attorney process? How has having lymphoma affected your perspectives and life plan? Share your insight in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyLymphomaTeam.