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 portacaths 

  • you may get an infection
  • the line may get blocked
  • a blood clot can develop
  • a portacath may split, but this is very rare

Your nurse will always test your portacath to check for blood return and to test with salt water (saline). It’s very important to tell your nurse if you experience pain around the portacath. This could mean the portacath has split or the needle is in the incorrect place.

The line is flushed regularly with heparin (an anti clotting drug) or saline to clean the line and prevent clotting. The nurses on the ward can teach you or your carer how to do this. Your district nurse can care for your line or 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, oozing 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 your nurse needs to flush the line regularly to keep it clear and to stop you developing any problems.

  • Standards for infusion therapy (4th edition)

    Royal College of Nursing 2016

  • Cancer: Principles and practice of oncology (11th edition)
    V T De Vita, S Hellman and S A Rosenberg 
    Wolters Kluwer, 2019

  • 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 (10th edition)
    S Lister and others
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2020

Last reviewed: 
01 Jul 2020
Next review due: 
01 Jul 2023

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