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.

How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy can be given in different ways.

  • It may be given as an injection, which takes a few minutes.
  • You may have it through a drip. This is called an infusion, which can take between 30 minutes and a few hours.
  • Fluorouracil (5FU) may be given 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 a tablet, that you take at home.
  • You may have a cannula or central line put in to have the chemotherapy.
Our specialist nurse, Jeni, explains how chemotherapy is given for pancreatic cancer.

What is 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.

A diagram of a cannula:

A diagram of a cannula

“My mum said it felt cold when the chemo was administered into the vein via a cannula.”

What is a central line?

You may be given chemotherapy through a central line, such as a PICC line, Hickman line or a portacath. These are long tubes that are put into a vein in your chest or arm. Part of the tube stays outside the body and is attached to a drip to give the chemotherapy. Central lines can stay in place for as long as your chemotherapy lasts.

A diagram of a central line:

A diagram of a central line

You will have a local anaesthetic to numb your chest or arm, so you shouldn’t feel any pain when you are having a central line put in.

The line will need to be flushed regularly with a small amount of liquid, even if it’s 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.
  • Hickman line. This is a long tube that is put into a vein in your chest.
  • 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.

These lines usually stay in place for as long as your chemotherapy lasts.

You will have your chemotherapy at the hospital as an outpatient, so you won’t need to stay overnight.

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

What is a chemotherapy cycle?

Chemotherapy is normally given in cycles. A cycle is the number of treatments planned over a set time, including a break before the next cycle. 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 or an infection.

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

Check-ups before and during treatment

You will have check-ups and blood tests before each cycle to make sure it’s safe to have the next cycle. The tests check your kidneys and liver are working properly, and that your blood count  has recovered enough from the last cycle.

You may also 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.

Questions about your chemotherapy?

If you have any questions about your chemotherapy and how it is given, speak to your doctor or nurse.

You can also speak to our specialist nurses on our free Support Line.

Speak to our nurses
Specialist nurse Nicci

Updated April 2022

Review date April 2024