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Portacaths

You can have chemotherapy and other drugs and fluids into a portacath.

A portacath is a small chamber or reservoir that sits under your skin at the end of your central line. The other end of the line sits in a large vein close to your heart. You can feel the chamber of the portacath, but unless you’re very thin you can’t usually see it.

When you need treatment, your chemotherapy nurse puts a needle into the chamber and gives you injections or attaches a drip. The drugs travel from the chamber to the tubing and into your bloodstream. The portacath stays in place for as long as you need treatment. 

The main advantage of a portacath is that you can't see it on the outside of your body. You don't have a tube coming out of your chest, as you do with a central line.

But some people prefer a central line because they don't like having a needle put in each time they need treatment. You might prefer the nurse to numb the area over the portacath with a local anaesthetic cream before the needle goes in.

Diagram showing an implantable port
Diagram showing an implantable port
Diagram showing an implantable port under the skin
Diagram showing an implantable port under the skin

Possible problems

Sometimes problems can happen with intravenous lines:

  • you may get an infection
  • the line may get blocked
  • a blood clot can develop

The line is flushed regularly with heparin (an anti clotting drug) or salt water (saline) to clean the line and prevent clotting. The nurses on the ward can teach you how to do this. Your district nurse can help you at home at first.

It’s very important to avoid getting an infection in the area where your line goes into your body. Phone the hospital and speak to your chemotherapy nurse or doctor if you notice any redness, swelling or soreness. These could be signs of infection.

You’ll need to have treatment with antibiotics straight away if you do develop an infection. Otherwise, a doctor or nurse may have to remove the line and put a new one in.

If you are not having treatment regularly you or a nurse needs to clean and flush the line regularly to keep it clear and to stop you developing any problems.

Last reviewed: 
16 Nov 2017
  • Standards for infusion therapy (4th edition)

    Royal College of Nursing 2016

  • Cancer: Principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)
    V T De Vita, S Hellman and S A Rosenberg 
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

  • Handbook of Cancer Chemotherapy (8th edition)
    R T Skeel and S N Khleif
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th edition)
    L Dougherty and S Lister
    Wiley-Black, 2015

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