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How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy can be given as an injection or infusion into a vein (intravenous chemotherapy), as tablets, or a combination of both. This will depend on which drugs you are having. Your oncologist or nurse will explain what your treatment will involve.

Injection or infusion into a vein

Chemotherapy drugs that are given intravenously may be given:

  • as an injection into a vein, which lasts a few minutes
  • through a drip into a vein (intravenous infusion), which can last for 30 minutes or a few hours
  • through a small portable pump, that you can carry with you and take home.

You will usually have intravenous chemotherapy at the hospital as an outpatient. This means you won’t need to stay in hospital overnight. You should be finished after a few hours and may be given drugs to take at home, such as anti-sickness drugs.

There are different ways of giving intravenous chemotherapy. This will depend on the type of drugs you are having and your treatment plan.   

Chemotherapy through a cannula

Chemotherapy can be given into a vein through a cannula. This is a thin plastic tube which is put into a vein in the back of your hand or lower arm. Once it is in place, drugs are given through a drip that is attached to the cannula, or through an injection given by the nurse. The cannula is removed after each treatment.

Central lines

You may be given chemotherapy through a central line, such as a PICC line, Hickman line or a portacath. These are long tubes that deliver drugs directly into a large vein in your chest or arm, and can stay in place for as long as your course of chemotherapy lasts. They may need to be flushed (washed through) regularly if they are not being used that week. They can also be used for taking blood tests. The different types of central lines are explained here.

  • PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter). A PICC line is the most common type of central line used. It is a thin flexible tube that is placed into a vein in your upper arm. The line runs up the vein, inside your arm and up into a large vein in your chest. A PICC line can be left in for many months and usually stays in place until your chemotherapy treatment is over. It is flushed once a week, unless it is being used for treatment.
  • Hickman line. A Hickman line is a long, hollow tube that is placed into a vein in your chest under a local anaesthetic. Part of the tube remains outside the body. This has an entry point  at the tip where treatment is given. Blood tests can also be taken through this line. The line is flushed once a week, unless it is being used for treatment. 
  • Implantable port (portacath). This is a soft, thin, plastic tube with a rubber disc (port) at the end.  It can be put into a vein in your chest under a local or general anaesthetic. The port is just under your skin. Treatment is given through a special needle which is passed through your skin into the port. Blood tests can also be taken through this line.  An implantable port can be left in for as long as you need treatment. It is flushed once a month.

Macmillan Cancer Support has images and videos on their website, showing how different types of central lines are put in.

Some chemotherapy drugs, such as capecitabine, can also be given as tablets. Your doctor or nurse will tell you how you should take it.

What is a chemotherapy cycle?

Chemotherapy is normally given in ‘cycles’. Each cycle includes one or more treatment sessions and a rest period to allow your body to recover before the next cycle starts. Cycles lasting two, three or four weeks are the most common.

Everyone responds differently to chemotherapy, and you will be closely monitored during your treatment. You will have a blood test before each chemotherapy dose. This is to check that your kidneys and liver are working properly, and that your white blood cell and platelet levels have recovered enough from the previous cycle. If the levels are too low, treatment may be delayed to give the white blood cells or platelets time to recover. You will also have regular check-ups with your chemotherapy doctor or nurse, usually just before each cycle.

Your chemotherapy team will give you information about your particular chemotherapy treatment. Read about the different chemotherapy cycles in our chemotherapy drugs section. 

More chemotherapy information

Published May 2017

Review date May 2019

Information Standard