What You Need to Know About Cancer and Infusion Therapy

When you’re facing treatment for cancer, you may start hearing about infusion treatments, therapies, and clinics. Infusions are a way to deliver drugs and medications directly into the bloodstream instead of taking them as pills or liquids.

Infusion treatments are commonly used to deliver chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy to treat cancer. Infusion therapies are liquids usually given from a plastic bag filled with medicine that's attached to a thin, soft tube called a catheter that delivers the fluid into your body through a vein.

Senior Adult Man Cancer Outpatient During Chemotherapy IV Infusion - stock photo

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Nurses will typically administer infusion therapies in an outpatient setting—at a doctor’s office, an infusion clinic, or even in your home with the help of a visiting nurse. In addition, you may get infusion therapies if you’re in the hospital.

This article will explain infusion therapy, its benefits, how it can treat patients, and what you can expect as a patient getting infusion treatments.

What Is Infusion Therapy?

Infusion therapy is one way of getting medications into your body. The medicines delivered are given in a liquid form injected into your body over time. The most common way to get an infusion is by a nurse administering medication from a bag connected to a tube that flows the liquid into your bloodstream.

The medicine typically goes into your vein (intravenously, or IV) or sometimes an artery. Some of these medications can be administered in other ways, including:

  • Under your skin (subcutaneously)
  • Into your muscles (intramuscularly)
  • Into the fluid around your spine (as an epidural)
  • Into a body cavity (like the abdomen)
  • Directly to a specific body part (like the liver)

Infusion therapies may also include drugs like insulin or chemotherapy delivered through a small pump, a needle, or an auto-injector, which is a self-administered dose prefilled into a spring-loaded syringe. 

There are three reasons you may need to get your therapies through an infusion:

  • Infusions are helpful for patients with conditions that make it difficult to swallow pills or liquids.
  • Some drugs, like chemotherapy, are too toxic to be delivered quickly and need to be dripped into the blood slowly over an extended period.
  • Some specific types of drugs can only be given as infusions or injections because, if swallowed, the stomach will break them down or they won’t get into the bloodstream through the gut.

Cancer and Infusion Therapy

For cancer patients, treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy are often given by infusion.

Chemotherapy drugs are quite toxic to the body, so they need to be given slowly to lessen side effects. However, not all chemotherapies are infusions—some are taken orally.

Other types of cancer therapies, including immunotherapies and targeted therapies, are made from monoclonal antibodies. Treatment with monoclonal antibodies almost always requires infusion therapy to administer.

Monoclonal antibodies are biologic drugs that must be administered directly into the blood or injected under the skin. Antibodies are naturally occurring proteins in your body and can directly target specific proteins and direct the immune system to attack them.

Monoclonal Antibody Drugs

Monoclonal antibody drugs are designed in the lab to act like human antibodies in the immune system by attacking specific proteins in the body called antigens that are causing disease. They’re administered through infusions to treat a variety of cancers and some other conditions like autoimmune diseases. 

Other Conditions That Infusion Therapy Treats

Many medications—other than cancer treatments—are delivered through infusion. Some of these include:

  • Antibiotics for stubborn infections that aren’t responding to oral treatments
  • Fluids used to treat dehydration
  • Insulin injected to regulate blood sugar in patients with diabetes
  • Pain medications, such as those used in childbirth, delivered directly into the fluid around the spinal cord (an epidural)
  • Blood and blood products, including platelets and clotting factors, that need to be delivered directly into the bloodstream
  • Biologics like monoclonal antibodies being used to treat neurological and autoimmune diseases, as well as infections, like COVID-19 
  • Monoclonal antibodies for autoimmune disorders like lupus and Crohn’s disease.

What to Expect During Infusion Treatments

There are many places that you can go to get infusion therapies. They may be performed in your home, a doctor’s office, the hospital, or a specialty infusion clinic. You may have access to a private room for your treatments, or you may get your infusion in a large room with other patients.

How you get your infusions depends on your insurance benefits and the locally available options. Ask your doctor about what to expect, check out the clinic's website, or call ahead with any questions.

Types of Lines

Infusion treatments can be administered in a variety of ways. For example, a nurse might insert an IV line each time you need an infusion by placing a needle into the vein in the back of your hand or inner forearm. This procedure will need to be repeated with each infusion treatment. The type of catheter used is called a peripheral IV line, or PIV. 

If you’re getting a series of infusions, you may need options that will not require needle placement each time you come in. This will also reduce discomfort and scarring at the PIV site. These devices stay in your body for an extended period and are removed when they’re no longer required.

A central line is bigger than a normal needle catheter and can be inserted into multiple places like the chest, arm, neck, or groin. It’s inserted during minor surgery either at a clinic or hospital.

Central lines are also called a central venous catheter (CVC) or a central venous access device (CVAD). Types of central lines include peripherally inserted central catheters (PICC lines) and ports. 

PICC lines are inserted into the upper arm, while other CVCs are inserted into the chest or neck. These options can be left in place for months but can’t get wet and need regular cleaning and maintenance.

Ports are small devices inserted under the skin in the upper chest. They can stay in place for years, can get wet, and require limited maintenance. Central lines are a good option for treatments that require repeated infusions over multiple months, including chemotherapies. 

During Infusion

Once the line is placed, the infusion can take time to administer. If the drugs are pushed in quickly by a nurse inserting medicine through a syringe into the line, called an IV push, it could take just minutes. Most infusions take about an hour.

Some medications may need a longer treatment time because they are more toxic to the body at higher concentrations. Dosing and delivery of the drugs are regulated by a machine called an IV pump.

Because it can take some time to get your infusion, make sure to eat a light meal or snack a bit before your chemotherapy treatment. Ask your doctor or the infusion clinic about eating before other treatments. 

The number of treatments you need and how often you need them will depend on the kind of treatment you're getting and for what condition. Ask your doctor for more information about your specific treatment course. You may get your treatment in cycles that give your body a break between treatment courses. 

Risks and Side Effects of Infusion Therapy

The attending nurse at the infusion clinic will monitor you for adverse effects of the infusion, including an allergic-like reaction called an immune reaction or a hypersensitivity reaction.

These reactions can happen with your first dose or any dose of an infusion drug. They can also occur immediately or take longer to appear.

If you have any of the following symptoms while getting an infusion, let your nurse know immediately:

  • Itching, rashes, or hives
  • Swelling of your lips, eyelids, or tongue, or any part of the body, especially the limbs (called edema)
  • A flush of redness in your face and neck
  • Fever or chills
  • Cough or shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Pain in your muscles or joints

Common reactions at the infusion site for any drugs include:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Pain 

Side effects can also be specific to the medication you’re receiving by infusion. 

Monoclonal antibody side effects include:

  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, and weakness
  • Digestive symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Low blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Rashes 

Chemotherapy side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Bruising and bleeding, anemia (lack of red blood cells)
  • Infections
  • Digestive symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, appetite changes, constipation, and diarrhea
  • Sores and pain in the mouth and throat
  • Numbness, tingling, pain

Summary

Infusions are medications delivered into the body through a line. In cancer treatment, they include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted treatments. Biologic drugs are often given by infusion. The infusion can be done at a clinic or at home. They can be administered through a peripheral line or central line. Infusions can have side effects, depending on the drug.

A Word From Verywell

Infusion therapies may seem scarier than taking a pill, especially if you’re affected by the sight of needles. But these therapies can be life-changing for people with cancer or other conditions treated by infusion drugs. Talk to your doctor or nurse if you have a fear of needles to find the best way to administer the drugs you need. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is IVIG infusion therapy?

Intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) infusion therapy loads your body with a wide variety of healthy antibodies from blood donated by many people.

A doctor may prescribe this treatment for various reasons. One main reason is that the patient lacks antibodies because of a problem with their immune system. When the body doesn’t make enough antibodies, it’s a condition called humoral immunodeficiency.

IVIG antibodies will help fight off infections. Treatments may be needed regularly but often are given in lower doses.

What is ketamine infusion therapy treatment? 

Ketamine infusion therapy is a treatment option for nerve pain during cancer treatment. The drug slows down the pain-sensing nerves, bringing relief and reducing your pain level. This relief comes quickly and can last days or even weeks or longer after repeated treatments.

Ketamine infusions can last between four and six hours, so plan to be at the clinic for a prolonged period. You’ll also need someone to take you home after the infusion.

What is the difference between infusion therapy and home infusion therapy?

Until the 1980s, most infusions were done in a hospital and required the patient to stay for the length of their treatment—an increasingly costly and inconvenient option.

As infusion treatments became more popular, researchers developed protocols and techniques to administer infusions in outpatient settings. These may include treatment centers like clinics and medical offices and now also the comfort of your own home.

A visiting nurse typically delivers home infusion therapies. The nurse may also instruct you or your caregiver on using the machinery or disconnect the tubing when the infusion is done.

You may also be given continuous infusion, in which you are sent home with an electronic IV pump that administers the drug over one or more days.

You’ll need to take special precautions and steps to keep the rest of your household safe while you’re getting treatments like infusions at home, as the drugs may be toxic.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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