What is CPR?

Your healthcare team may give you cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if:

  • you have a cardiac arrest – where your heart stops beating
  • a respiratory arrest – where your breathing stops.

CPR is treatment to restart your heart and breathing. A few people recover after CPR, but it’s not always successful.

If you have a cancer diagnosis, your healthcare team may ask if you want CPR if your heart or breathing stop. They will explain how likely CPR is to work as well as possible risks and benefits.

Once you make a decision about CPR, your doctor will write it in your notes and tell your healthcare team. The decision is checked regularly and can be changed.

If you are not able to make decisions about CPR, your doctor will talk to:

  • people close to you
  • an attorney (someone to help make decisions for you), if you have one.

If no decision is recorded and your heart or breathing stop, your healthcare team will make the best decision they can based on your situation.

Your decision about CPR will not affect any other care or treatment you receive.

What is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)?

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a way of trying to restart a person’s heart and breathing if they stop. When the heart stops beating, this is known as a cardiac arrest. If the breathing stops, this is called a respiratory arrest. Usually, both happen at the same time. This is known as a cardiopulmonary arrest. If a person having a cardiopulmonary arrest does not have their heart and breathing restarted quickly, they will die.

Sometimes a heart attack can cause the heart to stop, but not in all cases. A person’s heart or breathing can stop for a number of different reasons.

Different treatments can be used to help restart a person’s heart or breathing. The first treatment is usually CPR. This involves pushing down again and again on the person’s chest to keep the heart pumping blood around the body. This action is called a chest compression. CPR may also include blowing air into the person’s mouth to push oxygen into their lungs.

If CPR is given in the community, this may be the only treatment available until an ambulance arrives.

If CPR is given in hospital, the doctors or nurses will also use other treatments. They may give drugs and use specialist equipment to give oxygen. They will use a machine called a defibrillator to monitor any heartbeat. The defibrillator can also give shocks that may start the heart again.

Some public places, such as airports or shopping centres, keep a type of automated defibrillator. This can be used without any specialised training to give shocks that may restart the heart.

A cardiopulmonary arrest is an emergency medical situation and can be frightening. It can be distressing to see someone being given CPR, especially if it’s a loved one. Close family and friends may be asked to leave the area while CPR is given, though some people choose to stay with their loved one. The healthcare team involved will give support and information to any family or friends when they can.

How successful is CPR?

A small number of people will recover after having CPR. Some people will recover but will be left with serious long-term health problems. For others, CPR restarts the heart and breathing but the person is too unwell to recover. They may need ongoing medical support such as an artificial ventilator (breathing machine) in an intensive care unit. They may continue to live for hours, days or sometimes weeks, but can’t survive without this support.

For many people, CPR does not restart the heart or breathing and, sadly, they die despite the treatment.

Whether CPR works can depend on:

  • the age and general health of the person
  • any underlying health problems
  • the reason the heart and breathing stopped
  • how quickly the heart and breathing can be restarted.

For people affected by cancer, the success of CPR may also depend on the type and stage of the cancer and any cancer treatment. There are many types of cancer, and many types of cancer treatment. Some people will have treatment that aims to cure the cancer. Others may have cancer that can't be cured. Sometimes treatment itself may cause problems with the heart or breathing. Each person’s situation is different.

Sometimes a cancer can’t be cured, but the person is expected to live with the condition for a long time – perhaps for years. In this situation, if the heart or breathing stops, CPR may be given. If the person has reasonably good health, there is a small chance that CPR will work and they will live as long as expected.

If a cancer is very advanced, the heart and breathing may gradually slow down and stop as part of the natural process of dying. In this situation, giving CPR is unlikely to restart the heart. In fact, CPR may make the dying process longer.

Talking about CPR

Your doctor or nurse may talk to you about CPR. Your doctor or nurse will explain the possible risks and benefits of CPR. They will discuss whether CPR might work in your situation. If CPR is unlikely to be successful, they will explain why this is.

They may ask what treatment you want if your heart or breathing stops. This can be difficult and upsetting to talk about. But it’s important that you are included in the decision about whether CPR should be given.

If your doctor or nurse hasn’t talked to you about CPR but you want to discuss it, you can ask to speak to them. You may also want to talk things over with other people such as your partner, family, or religious adviser.

Back to Coping with advanced cancer

Decisions about treatment

Your doctors will talk to you about your treatment options and help you decide what feels right for you.

Practical help

Different people can give you care and support at home, in a hospital or in a hospice, depending on your situation.

Making CPR decisions

You may be asked to make a decision with your family and healthcare team about whether you want cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to be attempted.