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Cancer Health Center

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Last Days of Life (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Ethical Issues


Narrowly defined, a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order instructs health care providers that, in the event of cardiopulmonary arrest, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR, including chest compressions and/or ventilations) should not be performed and that natural death be allowed to proceed. DNR orders must be made before cardiac arrest and may be recommended by physicians when CPR is considered medically futile or would be ineffective in returning a patient to life. A DNR order may also be made at the instruction of the patient (or family or proxy) when CPR is not consistent with the goals of care. It is advisable for a patient who has clear thoughts about these issues to initiate conversations with the health care team (or appointed health care agents in the outpatient setting) and to have forms completed as early as possible (i.e., before hospital admission), before the capacity to make such decisions is lost. Although patients with end-stage disease and their families are often uncomfortable bringing up the issues surrounding DNR orders, physicians and nurses can tactfully and respectfully address these issues appropriately and in a timely fashion. Lack of standardization in many institutions may contribute to ineffective and unclear discussions around DNR orders.[9]

Ventilator Withdrawal

Fewer patients with advanced cancer will undergo resuscitation and ventilatory support when discussions regarding goals of care and advance directives begin early in the course of the disease. However, when advance directives are not available or when the directives are not adequately communicated, intubation may occur despite low likelihood of survival.

When ventilatory support appears to be medically futile or is no longer consistent with the patient's (or family's or proxy's) goals of care, ventilator withdrawal to allow death may take place. Extensive discussions must first take place with patients (if they are able) and family members to help them understand the rationale for and process of withdrawal. When no advance directive is available and a patient can no longer communicate, it is helpful to reinterpret in a more realistic light, or reframe for family members, that they are not making a decision to "pull the plug" for their loved one. Rather, they are helping the health care team interpret their loved one's wishes or discontinuing a treatment that is no longer considered effective. Such reframing is essential to help family members and significant others understand that the underlying disease process, and not ventilator withdrawal, is the cause of the patient's death.[10]

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