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

Choices about care and treatment at the end of life should be made while the patient is able to make them.

In addition to decisions about treating symptoms at the end-of-life, it is also helpful for patients to decide if and when they want this treatment to stop. A patient may wish to receive all possible treatments, only some treatments, or no treatment at all. These decisions may be written down ahead of time in an advance directive, such as a living will. Advance directive is the general term for different types of legal documents that describe the treatment or care a patient wishes to receive or not receive when he or she is no longer able to speak their wishes.

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The patient may also name a healthcare proxy to make these decisions when he or she becomes unable to do so. Having advance directives in place makes it easier for family members and caregivers when very important decisions have to be made in the last days, such as whether to give nutrition support, restart the heart, help with breathing, or give sedatives.

When the patient does not make choices about end-of-life care, or does not share his choices with family members, health care proxies, or the health care team, treatment may be given near death against the patient's wishes. As a result, studies show that the patient's quality of life may be worse and the family's grieving process may be more difficult.

Studies have shown that cancer patients who have end-of-life discussions with their doctors choose to have fewer procedures, such as resuscitation or the use of a ventilator. They are also less likely to be in intensive care, and the cost of their health care is lower during their final week of life. Reports from their caregivers show that these patients live as long as patients who choose to have more procedures and that they have a better quality of life in their last days.

Nutrition Support

The goals of nutrition support for patients in the last days of life are different from the goals during cancer treatment.

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.

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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
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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