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How Chemotherapy Treatments Are Given


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© American Cancer Society 2010

Most chemo drugs are given in one of the following ways:

  • You might simply swallow a pill or a liquid (Oral). This can be done in a doctor's office or at home. If chemo is taken at home, it is particularly important to follow the schedule.
  • Chemotherapy can be given right into your veins through a needle or tiny plastic tube (called a catheter). This is called an IV (intravenous) injection.The IV route gets the drug quickly throughout the body.
  • With a needle, like a flu shot. The shot may be directly into the affected area of the body. (This is known as "regional chemo.") Regional chemotherapy is only used for certain types of cancer. It allows a higher dose of medicine to go right to the cancer site. The shots may be given in your doctor's office, a hospital, a clinic, or at home.

According to the American Cancer Society: depending on the drugs and where the cancer is located, chemotherapy also may be given in one or more of these ways:

  • Orally or PO - This means by mouth (usually as pills) You swallow the drug in a pill, capsule, or liquid form just as you do other medicines. This method is usually more convenient and may be less expensive because the drugs can be taken at home. If you take chemo drugs by mouth, it is very important to take the exact dosage, at the right time, for as long as it has been prescribed for you. For more information please call the American Cancer Society at 800.ACS.2345 and ask for Oral Chemotherapy: What You Need to Know offsite link.
  • Intravenous or IV - The chemo is injected through a needle or catheter into a vein.
  • Intrathecal or IT - The drug is injected into the spinal canal. You may either get an injection directly into your spine or into a long-term catheter and port that is put under the skin on your head during surgery. This is called an Omaya reservoir. The port is a small drum-like device that has a small tube attached to it. The tube goes in to the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in your spinal canal.
  • Intra-arterial - The chemo drug is injected directly into an artery to treat a single area (such as the liver, an arm, or leg). This method limits the effect of the drug on other parts of the body.
  • Intracavitary - Chemo drugs are given through a catheter into the abdominal cavity (the space around the bowels and other organs in the belly) or chest cavity (the space around the lungs and other organs in the chest).
  • Intramuscular or IM - The drug is injected through a needle into a muscle.
  • Intralesional - The drug is injected through a needle directly into a tumor in the skin, under the skin, or in an internal organ.
  • Topical - The medicine is put right on to an area of cancer on the skin.


  • Some chemotherapy drugs are never taken by mouth because the digestive system can't absorb them or because they are very irritating to the digestive system. Even when a drug is available in an oral form (such as a pill), this method may not be the best choice. For example, some people with certain symptoms (severe nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea) can't swallow liquids or pills, and some people may have trouble remembering when or how many pills to take.
  • Sometimes plastic tubing is inserted under the skin and connected to a large vein in the chest, neck or arm during surgery. (A central venous catheter or CVC. It can stay in place over a period of time. Blood can be drawn from these catheters. Drugs can be injected directly into the CVC, or through an IV connected to the CVC. To learn more, see: Central Venous Catheter (CVC)

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