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Medical Power of Attorney and Ovarian Cancer

Posted on December 20, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Howard Goodman, M.D.
Article written by
Anastasia Climan

An ovarian cancer diagnosis is a life-altering moment that can transform the way you think about your future quality of life and treatment options. One member of MyOvarianCancerTeam said, “A diagnosis [of ovarian cancer] will scare you, disrupt your life, and add a degree of uncertainty to your plans for the future.”

Ovarian cancer can put life into perspective, bringing up issues that you may not have thought about, including how you want to be cared for if you cannot make those decisions for yourself. Many people, both with and without cancer, struggle with advance care planning, such as a living will or advance directives. But designating a medical power of attorney (POA) agent helps ensure that your wishes will be respected and your loved ones will have guidance in the face of potential challenges or end-of-life care.

What Is a Medical POA?

A medical POA, sometimes called a durable POA 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. 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:

  • Health care agent
  • Health care proxy
  • Health care surrogate
  • Health care representative
  • Health care attorney-in-fact
  • Patient advocate

A medical POA agent must follow any predetermined guidelines that you specify. However, this person can make significant decisions, including whether to opt into palliative or hospice care, keep you on life support, or discontinue cancer treatment.

Why Should I Designate a Medical POA?

Although it can be difficult to think about, choosing a medical POA agent can reduce the burden on your loved ones if your health declines. Outlining your preferences gives you better control over your medical care. However, health care situations can be complicated, and it’s nice to know you have a trusted person who can be your voice in an emergency.

By making decisions in advance — or choosing someone who understands your cancer care wishes — you can prevent others from grappling with decision-making on your behalf. Be sure to inform the person you choose as your agent so they can be prepared and available if called upon, and fully review with them your desires so that if their services are required, they will be able to make decisions consistent with your wishes.

Some members of MyOvarianCancerTeam reach out for support with decision-making before a medical POA would come into effect. One member offered encouraging advice by saying, “You must be your own advocate to make sure that all results and meds, symptoms, and treatments get to each and every one of your doctors. It is in your own best interest, and if you can’t do it physically, oversee someone you trust to act in your best interest, and confer with them often.”

If a court determines that your health care agent is not acting in your best interests or in line with your previously designated desires, the right of medical POA can be revoked.

In addition, a medical POA won’t become effective unless you don’t have the mental capacity or ability to communicate. A doctor must verify your inability to make health care decisions before your agent can intervene. You can also set limits on the types of health care decisions your agent can make for you, and the agent must follow any instructions or disclaimers you’ve provided.

What Happens if You Don’t Have a POA?

If you don’t choose a medical POA agent, one may be chosen for you. The following people (in this order) are legally authorized to make decisions about your health care if you can’t:

  • Guardians or conservators previously appointed by a court
  • A legal spouse or domestic partner
  • An adult child
  • An adult sibling
  • A caregiver (who is not your health care provider)
  • A close friend or nearby relative

If you don’t want any of the above people to have power over your care, you can specify that wish in your paperwork.

Who Should You Choose?

The rules may vary by state, but in general, a person must meet a few criteria before they 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) or related to either of these people.

Additionally, steer clear of choosing anyone you don’t fully trust or who can’t handle the responsibility.

Examples of people who are typically appointed to be health care agents include:

  • A close friend
  • A family member
  • A member of your religious community
  • A trusted neighbor

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. Because circumstances may change over time, you have the right to change your agent or revoke their rights as long as you’re still capable of making your own health care decisions. If a spouse was given the POA, for instance, they may have this right removed if a divorce occurs. Ask your oncology team for a referral to a law firm that can help explain the ins and outs of your medical POA document before signing.

How Do You Complete the POA Paperwork?

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 other states has its own mandatory disclosure statement for the same purpose.

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 POA 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 oncologist for a referral to a social worker or lawyer who can help you with the process. Taking these steps isn’t just important for people with ovarian cancer, but for any adult who wants a say in their future care.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyOvarianCancerTeam, you can connect with other people living with ovarian cancer. Members of this social network come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with ovarian cancer.

Have you designated a medical power of attorney? How did you choose the right person, and what was the process like? Share your insight in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyOvarianCancerTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Howard Goodman, M.D. is certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and specializes in the surgical management of women with gynecologic cancer. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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