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Cancer Health Center

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


Nutrition support can improve health and boost healing during cancer treatment. The goals of nutrition therapy for patients during the last hours of life are different from the goals for patients in active cancer treatment and recovery. In the final days of life, patients often lose the desire to eat or drink and may refuse food or fluids that are offered to them. Also, procedures used to put feeding tubes in place and problems that can occur with these types of feedings may be hard on a patient.

Making plans for nutrition support in the last days is helpful.

The goal of end-of-life care is to prevent suffering and relieve symptoms. If nutrition support causes the patient more discomfort than help, then nutrition support near the end of life may be stopped. The needs and best interests of each patient guide the decision to give nutrition support. When decisions and plans about nutrition support are made by the patient, doctors and family members can be sure they are doing what the patient wants.

Two types of nutrition support are commonly used.

If the patient cannot swallow, two types of nutrition support are commonly used:

  • Enteral nutrition uses a tube inserted into the stomach or intestine.
  • Parenteral nutrition uses an intravenous (IV) catheter inserted into a vein.

Each type of nutrition support has benefits and risks. (See the PDQ summary on Nutrition in Cancer Care for more information.)


An important decision for the patient to make is whether to have cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) (trying to restart the heart and breathing when it stops). It is best if patients talk with their family, doctors, and caregivers about their wishes for CPR as early as possible (for example, when being admitted to the hospital or when active cancer treatment is stopped). A do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order is written by a doctor to tell other health professionals not to perform CPR at the moment of death, so that the natural process of dying occurs. If the patient wishes, he or she can ask the doctor to write a DNR order. The patient can ask that the DNR order be changed or removed at any time.

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