How Chemotherapy is Done

Chemotherapy drugs are usually given through a catheter in a vein. A catheter is a very short, thin, flexible tube. It is typically inserted into a blood vessel in the hand or lower arm through a tiny puncture made with a sharp needle. Anti-nausea drugs, pain medications and other medications can also be given through this catheter.

If you need many chemotherapy treatments, you will have the choice of using a more long-term catheter. There are several options, but most frequently an implanted port is installed under the skin in the chest or arm, with a sterile piece of flexible tubing inserted directly into a vein.

An implanted port is a round metal or plastic disc about the same diameter of a quarter. It’s about one-half-inch thick, with a tiny hollow chamber in the middle. The chamber is covered on one side with a rubber-like membrane. When the port is implanted, this membrane lies just under the skin. Ports are installed in a simple, outpatient procedure. If you are very thin, there may be a small bump visible, but otherwise nothing shows.

During treatment, the chemotherapy drugs are injected by placing a special needle through the skin and the port’s rubbery membrane into the chamber. From there, the drugs go into the vein through the attached sterile tubing.

This system might seem a little intimidating at first. But most patients who require many chemotherapy treatments prefer it because it eliminates the need for having a needle placed in a vein every time they come for treatment.

An alternative catheter is a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC or PIC line). It is a form of intravenous access that can be used for a prolonged period of time (weeks to months) but is inserted by a specialized nurse at the bedside. These catheters hang out of your arm and require regular dressing changes and flushing.

What type of catheter you choose is an individual decision with your heatlh care team depending on your wishes, the type of treatment planned and your particular vein anatomy.