Ways of having chemotherapy
This page is about the different ways you can have chemotherapy. You can find the following information
There are different ways of getting chemotherapy drugs into your body. The best way for you depends on
- The type of cancer you have
- Where the cancer is in your body
- The particular drug you are having
The most common ways of having chemotherapy are either directly into the blood stream through a drip or an injection (intravenously), or as tablets or capsules (orally)
Less often, a drug may be injected into muscle or into the layer of fat just under the skin. For some types of cancer including brain tumours and leukaemia you may have a drug as an injection into the spinal fluid. For cancers that are in a body cavity, such as bladder cancer, you may have chemotherapy directly into the cavity. Other much rarer ways of having chemotherapy are as an injection into an artery near the tumour or directly into the tumour.
For some types of skin cancer, you may have chemotherapy as a cream.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the having chemotherapy section.
To damage and kill the cancer cells, the chemotherapy drugs must be absorbed into your blood and carried throughout your body. There are different ways of getting the drugs into your body. Doctors call these routes of administration. The best way for you depends on
- The type of cancer you have
- Where the cancer is in the body
- The particular drug or drugs you are having
The most common ways of getting the drugs into your body are
- Directly into the blood stream as an injection or through a drip (intravenously), often using an infusion pump
- Taking them as tablets or capsules – orally
These links will take you to other pages with more information about these ways of having chemotherapy.
Less often, drugs are injected into
- A muscle – intramuscular
- The layer of fat just under the skin – subcutaneous
- An artery – intra arterial
- The fluid around your spine or brain – intrathecally
- A body cavity – intracavitary, such as the bladder, chest cavity, or tummy (abdominal cavity)
- The space between the membranes that cover the lungs – intrapleurally
- Directly into the tumour – intralesional or intratumoral
For some types of skin cancer, you may have chemotherapy in a cream.
Sometimes your doctor may need to use 2 or more methods of giving chemotherapy at the same time.
The links will take you to the brief information below on each of these ways of giving chemotherapy.
The muscles in your thigh and buttocks are the most common areas for giving intramuscular chemotherapy. Drugs you have this way are absorbed into the blood more slowly than intravenous chemotherapy. This means that the effects can last longer than chemotherapy that you have injected into a vein.
The skin of the abdomen, thigh and upper arm are the most common areas for giving subcutaneous chemotherapy. You may be able to give these injections yourself. This link will take you to more information about subcutaneous injections.
The video below shows you how to give an injection just under your skin (subcutaneously).
View a transcript of the video showing how to give a subcutaneous injection (opens in new window)
Intra arterial chemotherapy means having drugs injected directly into arteries close to the cancer. This gives a very high dose of chemotherapy to the tumour, but less to the rest of the body. To have this treatment, you need to have a tube put into the artery under local anaesthetic.
This is a highly specialised way of giving chemotherapy and not available in all hospitals in the UK. The most common type of cancer treated in this way is liver cancer. The drugs are injected into the artery that supplies the liver (the hepatic artery). Intra arterial chemotherapy is used more rarely for other types of cancers, and usually only within clinical trials because it isn't yet clear how well it works.
The side effects of having chemotherapy in this way are generally the same as having it intravenously. There is a slightly increased risk of stomach irritation when you have this treatment for cancer in the liver. This is because some of the drug may get into the blood supply to your stomach. Your doctor may give you some tablets to help protect your stomach.
For most cancers, it is not necessary to inject chemotherapy drugs into the fluid around the spine and brain. But it is an important part of the treatment for some types of leukaemia and lymphoma as well as some types of brain tumour. To have chemotherapy in this way, you have an injection into your spine in your lower back. It is similar to having a lumbar puncture.
Intracavitary chemotherapy means injecting chemotherapy through a tube (catheter), directly into a body cavity. It gives a very high dose of chemotherapy to the tumour, but only a very low dose to the rest of the body. You may have intracavity chemotherapy for
- The bladder – intravesical
- The abdominal cavity – intra peritoneal
- The chest cavity – intrapleural
The peritoneum is a membrane that lines the abdominal cavity and covers the organs in the abdomen (tummy). Intra peritoneal (IP) chemotherapy means having the drugs injected directly into the cavity inside the peritoneum.
This treatment is not used very often in the UK. When it is used, it is mainly for treating ovarian cancer that has spread to the peritoneum. There is more about intra peritoneal chemotherapy in the ovarian cancer section. Doctors may also use intra peritoneal chemotherapy to treat a rare type of cancer of the abdominal lining called peritoneal mesothelioma.
You can have chemotherapy injected directly into the space between the 2 layers of skin-like tissue covering the lungs (the pleura). This is called intrapleural chemotherapy. Doctors sometimes use it to treat lung cancer or breast cancer that has spread to the lining of the lung.
Chemotherapy injected directly into your tumour is called intralesional or intratumoural chemotherapy. Doctors may suggest this for a rare type of cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma. But it is still very experimental and not widely used. Research is going on into using this type of chemotherapy for head and neck cancers and some other cancers.
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