What is CPR?

If you have a cardiac arrest (the heart stops) or a respiratory arrest (breathing stops) the doctor or healthcare team around you will probably try to restart your heart and breathing through cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). This usually involves pushing down on the chest and may involve giving rescue breaths into the mouth or giving oxygen into the lungs.

If you are in hospital, the staff will sound an emergency alarm and a resuscitation trolley with essential equipment on it will be used. Staff on the ward will begin the resuscitation until a specialist team arrives to take over.

Most people won’t experience CPR during their time in hospital. However, your doctor may ask you about it so that you are included in making the decision and your preferences are known. The healthcare team then knows whether CPR should be attempted if your heart or breathing stops.

Your doctor will discuss CPR with you if it’s relevant to your hospital visit and treatment. You will have time to think about what you want to do and ask any questions.

What is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)?

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a way of trying to restart the heart and breathing once they have stopped. When the heart stops beating, this is known as a cardiac arrest. If the breathing stops, this is called a respiratory arrest. They commonly occur together, and this is known as a cardiopulmonary arrest. Death will result if a cardiopulmonary arrest is not corrected quickly.

A cardiac or respiratory arrest may occur for a number of reasons and is different from a person having a heart attack, which is a particular medical condition.

CPR usually involves pushing down on the chest (chest compressions). Depending on the circumstances, it may include giving rescue breaths into the mouth or giving oxygen into the lungs. Medication is also often given, along with intensive support and monitoring.

CPR is different from other forms of resuscitation doctors might refer to – for example, using intravenous fluids to 'resuscitate' a person who is severely dehydrated.

If a person has a cardiopulmonary arrest in hospital, staff will sound an emergency alarm to alert the healthcare team that there is an emergency situation. An arrest or resuscitation trolley will be taken to the patient. The trolleys contain essential equipment and are available in the main areas of a hospital, as well as on every ward and in every clinic.

A resuscitation team will also be alerted to come to the patient. This includes a team of healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses, who are experienced in dealing with emergency situations.

It can be extremely distressing to see CPR being attempted, especially if it’s a loved one who is unwell. Sometimes families will be asked to leave the area, and they will be kept informed of what is happening. Some families want to stay with their loved one whilst CPR is being carried out. They will be supported by medical staff if they choose to witness the resuscitation attempt.

Why would I need to discuss CPR?

Most people won't experience a cardiopulmonary arrest during a hospital admission. However, your doctors may talk to you about CPR when you are admitted to hospital. This is to ensure that you are included in making the decision about whether or not CPR should be attempted if your heart or breathing stops.

As each situation is unique, the topic of CPR needs to be dealt with sensitively. Doctors will often explain if they feel that CPR is unlikely to be successful, especially when someone may be terminally ill. In these situations, attempting CPR unsuccessfully will only cause unnecessary distress to both the patient and their loved ones.

You can ask to speak to your doctors about CPR if this is something you’d like to discuss and they’ve not mentioned it at all.

How successful is CPR for a person with cancer?

CPR is not always beneficial. Its success depends on many factors, including:

  • the age and general health of the individual
  • any underlying health problems
  • the type and extent of the cancer
  • the main cause of the heart and breathing stopping
  • how quickly the heart and breathing can be restarted.

There are more than 200 different types of cancer, and many types of cancer treatment that can affect people in very different ways. Some people may have potentially curable cancers, while others may have cancer that can't be cured. Each individual situation is different.

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, CPR wouldn't be helpful or appropriate, as it's probable that the cancer itself will have affected some vital organs of the body, causing them to gradually stop working.

Sometimes a cancer may be incurable, but the person may be expected to live with the condition for a long while – sometimes for years. There may be many reasons why the heart or breathing stops suddenly, such as a serious infection caused by treatment. In this situation, attempting CPR may be appropriate, but it may still be unsuccessful.

There are four possible outcomes following cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which are:

  • complete recovery
  • partial recovery
  • prolonged survival
  • death.

Unfortunately, only a small number of people will make a complete recovery and be discharged from hospital.

Some may show a partial recovery but will be left with serious health problems, despite every effort being made to try to help.

For some people survival may be prolonged, often by using an artificial ventilator (breathing machine) in an intensive care unit. While this may extend their life by a matter of hours, days or sometimes weeks, the person's quality of life is usually very poor.

For many, CPR will not be successful and, sadly, they will still die.

Back to Coping with advanced cancer

Decisions about treatment

You may have lots of questions about your treatment options. You can talk to your doctors and nurses about these.

Who can help?

You can get care and support at home, in a hospital or in a hospice. This depends on your needs and preferences.

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.