How is chemotherapy given?

Chemotherapy uses drugs to attack cancer cells, slowing or stopping their ability to grow and multiply. Chemotherapy is usually given:

  • Orally: taking pills or capsules by mouth
  • Intravenously (IV): injecting medication into a vein
  • Intramuscularly (IM): injecting medication into a muscle
  • Subcutaneously: injecting medication under the skin

Patients may experience side effects from chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is not a "one-size-fits-all" cancer treatment. The wide range of cancer-fighting drugs attack different types of cancer cells at varying stages of cell development.

Chemotherapy can be given a few different ways:

  • Intravenously (IV): As an IV infusion, the medicine comes through a thin needle (IV) in a vein in your hand or lower arm. An oncology nurse will insert the needle before each infusion and remove it afterwards.
  • Injection: As a single shot into a muscle in your leg, arm, hip or under the skin in the fatty part of your stomach, leg or arm.
  • By mouth (orally): As a pill or capsule. You may sometimes take oral chemotherapy medicines at home.
  • Through a port: A port is a small disc made of plastic or metal. This is inserted in your chest during a short outpatient surgery. It is about the size of a quarter and sits right under your skin. A catheter (soft thin tube) connects the port to a large vein. A thin needle delivers the chemotherapy medicine into the port.
  • Through a catheter in your chest or arm: This is a soft thin tube that is inserted into a large vein. This is done in a short outpatient surgery. The other end of the catheter stays outside your body.

A catheter or port makes chemotherapy easier and more comfortable since you don’t to be restuck with an IV or injection each time. You healthcare team will teach you how to check your port or catheter for infection; it will be removed when you finish treatment.

Chemotherapy is usually an outpatient procedure, but it can take one to several hours to finish an infusion. You may be asked to stay for monitoring if your immune system is low or if you are experiencing side effects.

Sometimes, chemotherapy is given in a tablet or a liquid that is swallowed. Chemotherapy may be given in an injection into the bloodstream or a muscle. If the cancer is around the brain or spine, the chemotherapy might be given by a special injection into the back, called a spinal tap or lumbar puncture.

Intermountain Registered Dietitians
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Chemotherapy or biotherapy can be given in different ways. These include:

  • By vein: Chemotherapy or biotherapy may be given as a liquid through an IV or central line.
  • By mouth: Chemotherapy or biotherapy may be given as a pill or liquid by mouth. These medications should be taken at the same time each day.
  • By injection: Some chemotherapy or biotherapy medications are given as a shot. The shot can cause some discomfort.
  • By lumbar puncture (back poke): Some chemotherapy is given in the spinal fluid during a lumbar puncture.

Often, two or more medications are given at the same time. This is because each medication treats the disease in a different way.

Chemotherapy may be given in one or more ways depending on what type of cancer is being treated and what type of drugs the physician is planning to use. The most common methods of receiving chemotherapy are: intravenous (IV), oral, intramuscular (IM) and intrathecal (IT).

The intravenous (IV) route is a way of giving medicine directly into a vein. A thin plastic needle is inserted into one of the veins, usually in your lower arm or hand. You may experience a small amount of discomfort because a needle stick is needed to get into the vein. The chemotherapy flows from a plastic bag through plastic tubing to the needle and into the bloodstream. Sometimes, a syringe is used to push the chemotherapy through the tubing. For some patients, a long-term catheter, which is a thin tube, may be placed into a large vein in the body, where it will remain for as long as it is needed.

The oral method can be used to give chemotherapy drugs in the form of a pill, capsule or liquid. You will swallow it the same as you do other medications.

Intramuscular (IM) means an injection into the muscle. You will get an injection with a needle. You may feel a slight pinch when the needle enters the skin. This lasts only a few seconds.

The intrathecal (IT) method is used to deliver chemotherapy drugs into the spinal fluid by means of a spinal tap.

Other ways of administration might be: subcutaneously (SQ or SC), which is under the skin with an injection; intralesionally (IL), which is injecting directly into a cancerous area through the skin; topically, which is applying medication to the skin; or intracavitary (IC), which is when a catheter is placed, possibly in the abdomen, pelvis or chest, to administer medication.

Pumps may be used to control the rate of delivery of chemotherapy medicines.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.