Throughout cancer treatment, patients may go through many blood draws, infusions and injections. All these needle sticks can be uncomfortable, and over time, can even cause damage to veins.
Luckily, a small, implanted device called a port can be used to help patients avoid unnecessary pokes with a needle.
Ervin Brown, M.D., has placed more than 15,000 ports in his 17 years at MD Anderson. He shares answers to seven common questions about chemotherapy ports.
1. What is a chemo port?
A port is a device placed under the skin which connects to one of your major veins. It looks like a disc around the size of a quarter, with a flexible tube attached. Ports can be made of metal or plastic.
2. What are chemo ports used for?
Though they’re often called “chemo ports,” they’re not just used for chemotherapy. Ports can be used to draw blood and deliver any other intravenous medication patients may need during treatment. They can also be used to infuse contrast solution for diagnostic imaging like CAT scans and MRIs.
On treatment days, you’ll have your port accessed once, with a special needle stuck directly into the port. That way, if you need any additional infusions or blood draws, those can go through the port so that you don’t need multiple needle sticks. Having a port can make cancer treatment a bit more comfortable.
Just about anything we can do through a traditional IV can be done through a port.
3. How are chemo ports placed?
Because ports are under the skin, they’re placed during a surgical procedure. Port installation depends on which vein is used.
Ports can be in the arm or chest, but at MD Anderson, we usually install them on the chest just under the collarbone, and they lead to the jugular vein or subclavian vein.
A catheter attached to the port will go over the collarbone and into the jugular vein in the lower neck. The tip of the catheter will be where the superior vena cava joins the heart.
You may be able to see the port under your skin after it’s placed, but you can continue your normal activities once the wound has healed.
4. Which patients may use a chemo port?
Any patient who will be undergoing regular chemotherapy or other infusions may be a candidate for a port. Some patients may only need them for a few months, while others can use a port for years.
Your oncologist may recommend a port or another form of IV, like a PICC Line or central line. Talk to your care team to learn which option is a good fit for you and your treatment needs.
5. How are chemo ports maintained?
During active treatment, you’ll probably have your port accessed monthly, if not more frequently. Each time the port is accessed your care team will clean and prep the site with an alcohol-based solution.
After each port use, your care team will make sure there aren’t any blockages in the line by flushing the tube with saline solution.
6. What are the risks of using a chemo port?
As with any surgical procedure, there is a risk of infection with port placement, though the risk is relatively low. Fever, pain and inflammation around the port are signs of infection.
If you experience any of these, be sure to tell your care team. If a port gets infected, your care team will probably remove it, then place it again once you’ve recovered from the infection.
Blood clots are also sometimes caused by ports. These are also not very common, but they tend to happen less frequently with jugular vein placement compared to the subclavian vein.
Symptoms of a blood clot include pain and swelling in the back, shoulder or arm.
7. How are chemo ports removed?
Once you no longer need a port, it will be removed in an outpatient procedure. Patients usually receive oral sedation medicine, then the skin will be numbed before your care team makes an incision and takes out the port and catheter before stitching up the wound.
Though a port may seem intimidating at the time, patients often find they make cancer treatment more bearable and minimize discomfort during infusions and blood draws.