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How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy is given in cycles, which is the time it takes to have your treatment and to have a break before your next treatment starts. Everyone responds differently to chemotherapy. You will have check-ups before each cycle to check that you have recovered enough from your last treatment.

Most chemotherapy drugs are given:

  • as an injection, which takes a few minutes
  • through a drip – this is called an infusion, and can take between 30 minutes and a few hours
  • through a small pump, which you can carry with you and take home – this is used if you are having chemotherapy that takes longer than a few hours.

Capecitabine is taken as tablets that you take twice a day, and you can take these at home. Your chemotherapy team will tell you more about how to take these tablets. You will have the other chemotherapy drugs at the hospital as an outpatient. This means that you will go into the hospital for treatment, but you won’t need to stay overnight.

You may also be given medicines to take at home, such as anti-sickness medicine. It is important to tell your chemotherapy team about any other medication you are taking before starting your chemotherapy.

A cannula

A cannula is a thin, plastic tube which is put into a vein in the back of your hand or lower arm. The chemotherapy can be given through a drip that is attached to the cannula, or through an injection into the cannula. The cannula will be 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 chemotherapy into a vein in your chest or arm. Part of the tube remains outside the body and is attached to a drip to give you your chemotherapy. You will have a cream or injection (local anaesthetic) to numb your arm or chest, so you don’t feel any pain when you are having a central line put in.

Central lines can stay in place for as long as your chemotherapy lasts. They will need to be flushed regularly with a small amount of liquid, even if they are not being used. This is to make sure the line doesn’t get blocked.

PICC Line (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter). This is the most common type of central line. It is a thin tube that is put into a vein in your upper arm. The line runs up the vein in your arm and into a large vein in your chest. A PICC line can be left in for many months, and normally stays in place for as long as your chemotherapy lasts.

Hickman line. This is a long tube that is put into a vein in your chest. A Hickman line normally stays in place for as long as your chemotherapy lasts.

Portacath. This is a soft, thin, plastic tube with a small rubber disc at the end. This disc is called a ‘port’. The tube is put into a vein in your chest, and the port is placed just under your skin. A special needle is passed through your skin into the port to give you your chemotherapy. A portacath can be left in for as long as you need treatment.    

Your chemotherapy team can tell you more about central lines, and how they are looked after. Macmillan Cancer Support has more information and videos about how chemotherapy is given, including how different types of lines are put in.

What is a chemotherapy cycle?

Chemotherapy is normally given in cycles. This is the time it takes to have your treatment and a break before your next cycle of treatment. The break allows your body to recover between treatments. You may have a longer break if you need more time to recover from side effects.

A cycle normally lasts two, three or four weeks – but this will depend on the chemotherapy you are having. It is common to have a six month course of chemotherapy, but this will depend on how well the treatment is working and how chemotherapy affects you. Your chemotherapy team can tell you more about this.

Check-ups before and during treatment

Everyone responds differently to chemotherapy. You will have check-ups and blood tests before each chemotherapy cycle starts. This is to check that your kidneys and liver are working properly, and that your blood count has recovered enough from your last chemotherapy cycle.

Check-ups make sure that it’s safe to have your next cycle of chemoherapy and that there are no other problems, such as an infection.

You may have CT scans during your chemotherapy, to check how well your treatment is working. If you have advanced cancer, you will have a CT scan every two to three months. If you have chemotherapy after surgery, you may not have a CT scan until the end of your treatment.

Read more information

Read more about the different chemotherapy drugs used to treat pancreatic cancer.

Read about how chemotherapy is used to treat pancreatic cancer before and after surgery.

Read about how chemotherapy is used to treat inoperable pancreatic cancer.

Read about the side effects of chemotherapy and how to manage these.

Updated August 2019

Review date August 2021