Chemotherapy given into a vein (intravenous) goes directly into your blood and is carried to all areas of your body.
It can be given through:
- a cannula – a short thin tube put into a vein in your arm or the back of your hand
- a central line – a long thin tube inserted into a vein in your chest
- a PICC (peripherally inserted central venous catheter) line put into a vein in the arm and threaded through to a vein in the chest
- an implantable port (portacath) put into a vein and has an opening (port) under the skin on your chest or arm.
When your cannula, line or port is in place the chemotherapy drugs can be given into it by injection, as a drip or through a pump. Your nurse will check that the cannula, line or port is working properly before giving you the chemotherapy.
Having a cannula put in can be a bit uncomfortable or painful, but it shouldn’t take long and any pain soon wears off.
The cannula is put into a vein in the back of your hand or lower arm. Your nurse will place a see-through dressing over it to make sure it stays in place. The cannula is removed before you go home.
Central lines, PICC lines and implantable ports
Lines and ports are used to take blood samples as well as to give you chemotherapy. You can go home with the line or port in and it can be left in until your course of chemotherapy is over. This means you won’t need a cannula or needles put into the veins in your arm every time you have chemotherapy or blood tests. You can also have antibiotics, fluids or a blood transfusion through your line or port.
Your specialist nurse will explain how the line or port will be put in. Once it’s in place, the nurses will show you how to look after it.
When your course of treatment is over, the line or port will be taken out. A doctor or nurse will do this for you, usually in the outpatients department.
Many people won’t need to have a line or a port. It depends on the type of cancer you have or the chemotherapy treatment you’re having. They can also be used if there are problems with the veins in your arm, or if you’re very anxious about having needles put in.
A central line is a long, thin, hollow tube that is inserted into a vein in your chest. They’re sometimes called skin-tunnelled central venous catheters. But you may hear them called by brand names, such as Hickman® or Groshong® lines.
PICC (Peripherally Inserted Central venous Catheter) line
A PICC line is a long, thin, hollow tube that your doctor puts into a vein near the bend in your elbow. You’ll be given a local anaesthetic to numb the area before the line is put in. The specialist nurse or doctor gently threads it along the vein until the tip sits in a large vein in your chest. The end of the line comes out just below the crook of your elbow. Once it’s in place, the PICC line is taped firmly to your arm to prevent it being pulled out of the vein.
Implantable port (portacath)
An implantable port is a thin, soft plastic tube with a rubber disc (port) at the end. It can be put in under a general or local anaesthetic. The tube is inserted into a vein until its tip sits just above your heart and the port lies under the skin on your upper chest. Once it’s in place, you can feel and see the port as a small bump underneath the skin of your chest, but nothing shows on the outside of your body.
To use the portacath, a special needle called a Huber needle is passed through your skin into the port. Your nurse can give medicines into the vein or take blood. The skin over the port can be numbed with an anaesthetic cream first so you don’t feel any discomfort.
Having intravenous chemotherapy
Chemotherapy drugs given into a vein (intravenously) can be delivered in different ways. Your chemotherapy nurse will wear gloves and a plastic apron while giving you chemotherapy. This is just a precaution to protect them from any spillage of the drugs.
As an injection
The chemotherapy drugs are injected directly into a vein through your cannula or central line over a few minutes. Sometimes a bag of clear fluid is attached to plastic tubing and connected to the cannula or line in your vein first (called a drip or infusion). The drug is injected into a connection or tap on the plastic tubing and flushed into your vein with fluid from the bag.
A drip through a pump
The chemotherapy drugs are dissolved in a bag of fluid and given to you as a drip that runs through an infusion pump. The nurses set the pump to give you a controlled amount of chemotherapy over a fixed time. This can be from 20 minutes to several hours, depending on the chemotherapy you’re having.
A drip on its own
Sometimes chemotherapy is given through a drip without a pump. The nurses set the rate and check it regularly to make sure it’s at the right speed.
Through a small pump
Some types of chemotherapy are given over a few days and are set up at the hospital so you can go home with it. The chemotherapy is in a small pump which your nurse connects to your central or PICC line. The pump is small enough to be carried in a bag or belt holster.
You, and sometimes a relative or friend, will be taught how to look after it. Some pumps are battery-operated so you need to be careful not to get them wet when you’re washing. There are also disposable pumps that are operated by a balloon mechanism or spring control.
Your nurse or pharmacist will explain how to look after the pump and who to contact if you have any problems.
When the infusion is finished there may some fluid left in the pump. Some pumps need to be overfilled to get the correct dose so this may be normal. Your nurse or pharmacist can tell you if you should expect this.
If a chemotherapy drug leaks
If a drug leaks into the area around the vein while being given, it’s called extravasation. This is uncommon but can happen if a cannula dislodges and isn’t in the correct position in the vein. Extravasation rarely happens with a central line.
Your nurse will be very careful to prevent extravasation when giving your chemotherapy. Some chemotherapy drugs can damage the tissues so it’s very important that extravasation is dealt with straight away. If you notice any swelling, pain, stinging or redness during your chemotherapy, tell your nurse immediately. If you develop any of these problems after you go home, contact the hospital straight away.