How chemotherapy is given

Chemotherapy can be given in different ways depending on the type of cancer you have and your treatment plan. Your chemotherapy nurse will explain what is involved.

Chemotherapy can be given:

  • by injection or a drip directly into a vein (intravenous chemotherapy)
  • by mouth as tablets or capsules (oral chemotherapy)
  • by injection into a muscle (intramuscular) or under the skin (subcutaneous)
  • by injection into the fluid around the spine and brain (intrathecal chemotherapy)
  • directly into a body cavity, for example the bladder (intracavitary)
  • directly to the skin as a cream for some skin cancers.

Chemotherapy into a vein can be given through a cannula, line or port inserted into a vein in the back of your hand, arm, chest or neck.

You can go home with the line or port in and it can be left in until your course of chemotherapy is over. Your nurse will show you how to look after it. Many people will not need a line or a port.

Chemotherapy into a vein

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
  • central line – a long, thin tube inserted into a vein in your chest
  • PICC (peripherally inserted central venous catheter) put into a vein in the arm and threaded through to a vein in the chest
  • an implantable port (portacath) put into a vein, with 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.

Cannula

Having a cannula put in can be a bit uncomfortable or painful, but it should not take long. When it is in place, it should not be painful.

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.

If you feel any discomfort, stinging or notice redness or swelling around the cannula or along your arm during or after chemotherapy, tell your nurse or doctor straight away.

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. It can be left in until you have finished your course of chemotherapy. This means you will not 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 is 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 outpatient department.

Many people will not need to have a line or port. It depends on the type of cancer you have or the chemotherapy treatment you are having. They can also be used if there are problems with the veins in your arm, or if you are very anxious about having needles put in.

Central line

A central line is a long, thin, hollow tube that is put into a vein in your chest. Central lines are sometimes called skin-tunnelled central venous catheters. But you may hear them called by brand names, such as Hickman® or Groshong® lines.

Central line
Central line

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PICC (peripherally inserted central venous catheter) line

A PICC line is a long, thin, hollow tube that your doctor or nurse puts into a vein above your elbow. 

Your doctor or nurse will give you a local anaesthetic to numb the area before the line is put in. Then they will gently thread the line along the vein until the tip sits in a large vein in your chest. The end of the line comes out above the bend of your elbow. Once it is in place, the PICC line is taped firmly to your arm to prevent it being pulled out of the vein.

PICC line
PICC line

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Implantable port (portacath)

An implantable port is a thin, soft, silicone tube with a small reservoir (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 is 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 do not feel any discomfort. We have more information about implantable ports.

Implantable port
Implantable port

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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.

Chemotherapy being given by injection into a cannula
Chemotherapy being given by injection into a cannula

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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 10 minutes to several hours, depending on the chemotherapy you are 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 is 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 family member 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 are washing. There are also disposable pumps that are operated by a balloon mechanism or spring control.

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.

You usually come back to the hospital to have the pump disconnected. Sometimes, a district nurse will do this for you at home. Your chemotherapy nurse or pharmacist will explain how to look after the pump and what to do if there is a problem.

If a chemotherapy drug leaks

If a drug leaks into the area around the vein while being given, this is called extravasation. This is uncommon but can happen if a cannula moves and is not in the correct position in the vein. Extravasation rarely happens with a lines or ports.

Your nurse will be very careful to prevent extravasation when giving your chemotherapy. Some chemotherapy drugs can damage the tissues, so it is 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.

Having chemotherapy into a vein

How chemotherapy can be given into a vein and other people's experiences.

About our cancer information videos

Having chemotherapy into a vein

How chemotherapy can be given into a vein and other people's experiences.

About our cancer information videos


Other ways of having chemotherapy

There are other ways you can have chemotherapy, apart from into a vein (intravenously). Your chemotherapy nurse or cancer doctor will explain more about this.

By mouth (oral chemotherapy)

Some chemotherapy drugs can be taken by mouth (orally) as tablets or capsules. This is just as effective as other types of chemotherapy. The drug is absorbed into your blood and carried around your body, just like intravenous chemotherapy. You may have all your treatment as oral chemotherapy, or you may have it in some other ways as well.

You will be told when to take your chemotherapy tablets or capsules. Your nurse or pharmacist may give you other instructions, such as whether or not to take them with food, or any food or drinks to avoid.

It is very important to:

  • read the labels on the drug boxes before you leave the hospital and speak to your nurse, doctor or pharmacist if any instructions are unclear
  • take your drugs exactly as prescribed, because not taking them at the right times can affect how well treatment works
  • contact your nurse or doctor at the hospital straight away for advice if you cannot take your medicines for any reason, are sick after taking them, or have forgotten to take a dose.

Chemotherapy by mouth can cause side effects, just like chemotherapy into a vein. It is important to know what they are. You also need to know how to store your drugs safely. You can read more about having chemotherapy at home below.

Injection into a muscle or skin

Some chemotherapy drugs are given by injection into a muscle in the leg or buttock (intramuscular). This might feel a bit painful or uncomfortable for a short time.

Some drugs are given by injection under the skin (subcutaneous) using a very fine needle.

Injection into the spinal fluid (intrathecal)

In some leukaemias, lymphomas or brain tumours, cancer cells can pass into the fluid that surrounds and protects the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid or CSF).

Intrathecal chemotherapy can be used to prevent this from happening, or to destroy any cancer cells in the CSF. Only certain chemotherapy drugs can be given in this way. Chemotherapy into a vein or by mouth cannot reach these cancer cells.

The doctor numbs an area of skin over your spine with local anaesthetic. After a few minutes, they gently insert a needle between 2 of the spinal bones into the CSF. This is called a lumbar puncture. Your doctor then injects intrathecal chemotherapy through the needle into the CSF.

Having a lumbar puncture is not usually painful, although some people may find it uncomfortable. Your cancer doctor and nurse will explain it to you, so you will know what to expect. They will make sure you are comfortable, and you can have a relative or friend with you.

The most common side effect of a lumbar puncture is a headache. To help prevent this, you will be advised to drink plenty of fluids and lie flat afterwards. This may be from 1 hour to a few hours, depending on how you feel.

Into a body space (intracavitary)

Chemotherapy drugs can be given into a space (cavity) in the body. This can cause irritation or inflammation in the area the drugs are given, but it does not usually cause side effects in other parts of the body.

A fine tube (catheter) is usually inserted into the body cavity and chemotherapy is put in through this tube. It may be drained out again after a set period of time. Chemotherapy can be given into the following places:

  • Into the bladder (intravesical) – This is used to treat early bladder cancer. Liquid chemotherapy drugs are given directly into the bladder through a catheter, which is removed when it is over. We have more information about this treatment.
  • Into the abdominal cavity (intraperitoneal chemotherapy) – This is very occasionally used to treat ovarian cancer or mesothelioma in the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma).
  • Between the 2 layers of the pleura (tissue that covers the outside of the lungs) – Chemotherapy is sometimes put in between the 2 layers of the pleura to treat cancer cells that have spread there.
  • Into a limb (isolated limb perfusion) – Chemotherapy is very occasionally given directly into the blood vessels in a limb. This is to treat a skin cancer called melanoma that has come back. We have more information about isolated limb perfusion.

Chemotherapy creams

Chemotherapy creams are used to treat some types of skin cancer. You put a thin layer of the cream on the affected skin and cover the area with a dressing. Your specialist nurse or pharmacist will show you how to do this and will explain how often you need to apply the cream. Although the cream can irritate the skin in the area or make it sore, it will not cause side effects in other parts of the body.

Oral chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can be given as tablets or capsules. We explain how to look after them and what to expect.

About our cancer information videos

Oral chemotherapy

Chemotherapy can be given as tablets or capsules. We explain how to look after them and what to expect.

About our cancer information videos


Chemotherapy at home

If you are having chemotherapy at home as tablets or through a pump, there are certain things to remember:

  • Chemotherapy tablets, capsules or injections may need to be stored in a particular way, such as in the fridge. Always follow the instructions given by your nurse or pharmacist.
  • Other people in your household should avoid direct contact with your chemotherapy drugs and avoid picking them up with bare hands.
  • All drugs must be stored out of the reach of children, as they could cause serious harm if taken by accident.
  • If you are having intravenous chemotherapy by pump and you notice the drug leaking from the pump or tube, you should close the clamps on the pump, wrap it in a plastic bag and wash your hands. Some hospitals provide a spill or leakage kit, which includes instructions on what to do if your pump leaks. You should then contact the nurse or doctor at the hospital straight away.
  • If you feel unwell at any time of the day or night, use the contact numbers you have been given to get advice.

Back to Being treated with chemotherapy

Where can I have chemotherapy?

Usually chemotherapy is given in a chemotherapy day unit. Some may people stay in hospital, or have treatment at home.

Central lines

A central line is a long, thin hollow tube. It is inserted into a vein in your chest to give chemotherapy and other drugs.

Implantable ports

An implantable port is a tube with a rubber disc at the end. It is inserted into a vein to give chemotherapy or other medicines.

PICC lines

A PICC line is a long, thin, flexible tube known as a catheter. It is put into the arm to give chemotherapy and other medicines.

Lumbar punctures

A lumbar puncture involves inserting a hollow needle between 2 of the spinal bones. This may be used to give chemotherapy.