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Cancer Health Center

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


Ventilator Use

Ventilator use may keep the patient alive after normal breathing stops.

A ventilator is a machine that helps patients breathe. Sometimes, using a ventilator will not improve the patient's condition, but will keep the patient alive longer. If the goal of care is to help the patient live longer, a ventilator may be used, according to the patient's wishes. If ventilator support stops helping the patient or is no longer what the patient wants, the patient, family, and health care team may decide to turn the ventilator off.

Some patients may want to be allowed to die when breathing gets difficult or stops. It is important for the patient to tell family members and health care providers, before breathing becomes difficult, of his or her wishes about being kept alive with a ventilator.

Before a ventilator is turned off, family members will be given information about what to expect.

Family members will be given information about how the patient may respond when the ventilator is removed and about pain relief or sedation to keep the patient comfortable. Family members will be given time to contact other loved ones who wish to be there. Chaplains or social workers may be called to give help and support to the family.


The decision whether to sedate a patient at the end of life is a difficult one. Sedation may be considered for a patient's comfort or for a physical condition such as uncontrolled pain. Palliative sedation may be temporary. A patient's thoughts and feelings about end-of-life sedation may depend greatly on his or her own culture and beliefs. Some patients who become anxious facing the end of life may want to be sedated. Other patients may wish to have no procedures, including sedation, just before death.

It is important for the patient to tell family members and health care providers of his or her wishes about sedation at the end of life. When patients make their wishes about sedation known ahead of time, doctors and family members can be sure they are doing what the patient would want. Families may need support from the health care team and mental health professionals while palliative sedation is used.

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: May 28, 2015
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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