How a Chemotherapy Infusion is Used For Breast Cancer

Find Out About How Its Administered and the Side Effects

Chemotherapy Nurse and IV Bags
Chemotherapy Nurse hanging IV Bags of chemotherapy drugs at M.D. Anderson in Texas. Credit: National Cancer Institute, Bill Branson photo

Chemotherapy infusions are commonly used during breast cancer treatments. As effective tools, they also do have side effects.

What is a Chemotherapy Infusion?

Also called an intravenous (IV) infusion, a chemotherapy infusion is a method used to put fluids, including saline and drugs, into your bloodstream as a body-wide way to fight cancer. Your breast cancer diagnosis, staging, hormone status and overall health will be evaluated to determine the appropriate amount of drugs and pre-medications, such as medicines to prevent nausea and vomiting. Infusions may be given in different schedules, such as a high-dosage schedule where the infusion is administered every three weeks, or a low-dosage, where it is administered weekly. 

What Can I Expect During A Chemotherapy Infusion?

Because chemotherapy infusions administer the medications directly into the blood, every cell in your body is exposed to the drugs. Cancer cells, as well as some healthy cells, may be affected. Your blood counts may change after each treatment depending on the drugs given, so you will have a test called a complete blood count (CBC) to check your white and red cells as well as other elements in your blood. If your CBC indicates problems, you may need booster shots to increase your white or red blood cells or treatment may be withheld until they recover on their own. Ask for copies of your CBC reports and save those for your health records for future reference.

When it's time to get your chemotherapy infusion, you will typically go to a specialized cancer clinic or hospital. Specially trained nurses will collect your prescribed drugs, check the dosages and seat you in a comfortable chair. Your chemotherapy drugs will be delivered via an IV-drip or injection, depending on the type of medication being given.

If you have a port under your skin, the nurse will use a special needle connected to a catheter, a long slender tube, to access your port. If you don’t have a port, then the nurse will access a vein directly with a needle which will be secured with tape or bandages. All of the drugs will be administered through this needle and catheter.

Once your vein or port has been accessed, the drugs in the IV bag will be allowed to drip at a controlled rate into your bloodstream. Injections and pre-medications may be given via the IV bag as well. If common chemotherapy drugs like Adriamycin or Taxol are given, the nurse may use a large plastic syringe connected to your catheter to push the drug manually or an infusion pump may be used.

Because chemotherapy often produces side effects, your healthcare team will tell you about what to expect and your doctor may prescribe follow-up medications to help manage the symptoms. Taking those medications as prescribed and on time is vital; if you take them off-schedule, they will be much less effective. You will be asked to return to the clinic for another CBC after each treatment so that your blood levels can be monitored. If you need any help with rehydration, you can be given an additional infusion of saline fluid. And if you’re having difficulty with nausea, vomiting or other side effects, ask for help. The nurses often have tips on ways to deal with side effects related to your medications.

How Can I Manage Side Effects?

Keep a log of your reactions to the infusion such as vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, hives or skin redness near the injection site. Be sure to note the date, time, intensity and estimated volume of each occurrence. If you don’t feel well enough to write this information in the log, ask a family member to help you. It's also helpful to record any weight loss or gain. Bring this log with you to your appointments and share it with your doctors. This information can help your nurses and doctor understand your needs and tailor a treatment plan to make it easier for you. Drug doses can be adjusted and other medications can be prescribed to help alleviate side effects.

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Article Sources
  • Source: (AMGEN). Treating Cancer with Chemotherapy. Copyright 2007.