What is a Chemotherapy Infusion for Breast Cancer?

What to expect when undergoing this test

In This Article

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 infusion is a common breast cancer treatment. Also called an intravenous (IV) infusion, a chemotherapy infusion delivers medication directly into your bloodstream as a body-wide way to fight cancer.

Your breast cancer diagnosis, staging, hormone-receptor status, and overall health will be evaluated to determine the appropriate amount of drugs and pre-medications to prevent side effects.

Purpose of Infusion

In breast cancer, chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery. It's a common treatment at every stage.

After surgery, it's used to eliminate any cancer cells that weren't removed. This can help keep cancer from coming back. Before surgery, it can shrink tumors so less tissue has to be removed.

In advanced-stage and metastatic breast cancer, the whole-body nature of chemotherapy is important because the cancer is no longer confined to a single area.

Risks and Contraindications

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, which are important parts of your immune system, may change after each treatment depending on the drugs you're given, so you'll 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.

Before the Infusion

Your doctor will consider all the information that's been gathered about your cancer as well as the specifics of your case and medical history when determining your chemotherapy drug(s) and schedule.

Timing

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. 

Infusion times can vary from about 30 minutes to four hours. Make sure you know how long you should expect to be there.

Be sure to arrive early enough to get checked in and use the bathroom before your scheduled time.

Location

When it's time to get your chemotherapy infusion, you will typically go to a specialized cancer clinic or hospital.

What to Wear

Putting through into how you dress can make chemotherapy more comfortable. Good choices include:

  • For arm/port accessibility: A short-sleeved shirt
  • For warmth, as hospitals can be cold: A hoodie or cardigan, warm socks or slippers to change into
  • For general comfort and in case you want to sleep: Sweats or yoga pants, a non-underwire bra, clothes that aren't tight or constrictive, no jewelry or belts

Food and Drink

Be sure to get plenty of fluids before infusions so you're well hydrated.

Small amounts of bland food are usually best before your infusion, because you may become nauseous. Common choices include yogurt, cottage cheese, fruit, toast, cereal, saltine crackers, or chicken soup.

You may also want to take one of these types of foods as a snack for during your infusion, along with water or a non-acidic juice such as apple or grape.

Ask what's available at the facility, as well. Many of them will supply beverages and nutritional drinks such as Ensure or Boost.

Cost and Health Insurance

Check with your health insurance to see what your policy covers in regards to chemotherapy infusions. Be sure to ask about the specific drugs your doctor wants you treated with as well as the infusion facility.

If you don't have adequate insurance, you may want to look into government programs, at both the state and federal level, to see what's available for you.

Your doctor's office and the infusion facility should be able to give you information about costs.

What to Bring

Make sure you have your insurance card and any paperwork you were asked to bring. Be prepared to answer questions about your diagnosis and medical history.

You may want to take something to read and/or have plenty of games available on your phone or other electronic devices. Earbuds and music may be helpful for passing the time, relaxing, and tuning out environmental noise so you can rest or sleep better.

Some people like to bring their own blanket, as well, or other things that provide comfort—physical or emotional.

During the Infusion

If, at any time during or after your infusion, you feel like something is wrong, let someone know. They know how to solve common issues and get you through your treatment as comfortable as possible.

Pre-Infusion

When it's time for your infusion, 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.

Throughout the Infusion

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.

Post-Infusion

When the infusion is done, a nurse will disconnect your arm or port. You may need to stay for a little while afterward to make sure you're feeling all right. If you need any help with rehydration, you can be given an additional infusion of saline fluid.

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.

Before you leave the facility, a nurse may review side effects with you and give you numbers to call if you have questions or a severe or unexpected side effect.

Make sure your next infusion is scheduled, as well.

It's a good idea to have someone drive you to and from infusions, as you probably won't be up to driving afterward.

After the Infusion

You'll be asked to return to the clinic for another CBC between each treatment so that your blood levels can be monitored.

Managing Side Effects

Your doctor may prescribe follow-up medications to help manage the side effects of chemotherapy.

Taking side-effect medications as prescribed and on time is vital; if you take them off-schedule, they will be much less effective.

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.

Food and Drink

Continue to eat a bland, low-fat diet for a few days after each infusion. Small, frequent meals, five or six a day, usually work better than three large meals.

Make sure to get plenty of fluids to keep yourself hydrated. Clear soup, low-salt broth, herbal or weak black teas, and non-acid juices are all things to keep on hand.

A Word From Verywell

Chemotherapy can be hard on your body and difficult to get through. Try to keep in mind that it's an effective treatment for many people in their battle against cancer. Temporary side effects may not seem too high a price for many more years of life.

Also, know that you have the right to forego treatment with chemotherapy. This is an option many people with advanced cases consider, as they weight quality of life versus the added quantity that chemotherapy may give them. Your doctor and your loved ones will likely have strong feelings about this, but in the end, the choice is yours.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources