Chemotherapy port

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Priya Vishnubhotla, MD, Chief, Medical Oncology, City of Hope Atlanta

This page was updated on December 18, 2023.

People undergoing chemotherapy to treat their cancer may benefit from having a port implanted to make the delivery of medications easier. Chemotherapy ports, which are also known as port-a-caths, mediports or implantable ports, are relatively small and discreet devices that doctors implant beneath the skin. When they’re not in use, they appear as a small bump under the skin.

The chemo port allows the doctor to provide medication without the need for multiple needle sticks. It’s intended to make delivery of chemotherapy drugs and other medications more comfortable and less invasive.

This article will explore the following topics:

What is a chemo port?

A chemo port is a small, implantable device with multiple parts, detailed below.

Reservoir: This is the body of the port. The doctor will surgically implant this under the skin, typically in the chest area, just above the breastbone. It serves as a secure access point for the delivery of medications.

Septum: Covering the top of the reservoir is a septum, which is a self-sealing, rubber-like material. Health care professionals use a special needle to access the port through the septum to deliver medications or draw blood.

Catheter: This is a thin, flexible tube that is attached to the reservoir, extending from the port to a major vein near the heart. It’s what allows chemotherapy medications to get directly into the bloodstream.

The two main types of available chemo ports are:

  • A single-lumen port, which provides one access point
  • A double lumen port, which allows the health care team to place two needles at a time

In most cases, the patient will only need a single-lumen port.

Chemo ports and catheters are typically removed once treatment is complete.

Chemo port placement

Installing or placing a chemo port involves minor surgery usually performed under local anesthesia or conscious sedation. Local anesthesia numbs the area around the port site, while conscious sedation help the patient stay relaxed but awake throughout the procedure.

When implanting the chemo port, the surgeon or radiologist will:

  • Create a small incision on the neck to access the vein
  • Make a small opening in the vein to insert the catheter
  • Make another small incision just above the breastbone (usually around 2 centimeters)
  • Create a pocket under the bottom layer of skin
  • Carefully place the port in the pocket
  • Secure the port in place
  • Thread the catheter to the vein using fluoroscopy (a type of continuous X-ray)
  • Close the incisions either using sutures or surgical glue
  • Take a chest X-ray to check that the chemo port is in the correct place

The entire procedure typically takes less than an hour. Patients should be able to return home on the same day of the procedure. However, due to the effects of anesthesia, they’ll likely need someone to pick them up or another form of transportation to drive them home.

How soon can patients start chemo after port placement?

After the port is in place, it’s important to allow the surgical incision site to heal properly before starting chemotherapy. Healing times vary, but it usually takes between a few days to a couple weeks. Patients’ health care team will show them how to care for the area during the healing process. The doctor will check the incision site to ensure it has healed enough before beginning chemotherapy treatment.

In addition to healing of the chemo port site, other factors that impact how soon chemotherapy can begin include:

How painful is a chemo port?

The implantation procedure should be relatively painless, thanks to conscious sedation or local anesthesia used to numb the area.

Immediately after the surgeon inserts the port, it’s not uncommon for patients to experience mild soreness or tenderness around the incision site. This is a normal response to surgery and usually goes away within a few days as the incision site heals. Over-the-counter pain medication may often help relieve discomfort during the healing process.

Patients shouldn’t feel pain after the initial healing of the implantation site. If they do, it’s important that they speak to their health care team so they can double-check the functionality of the chemo port and make necessary adjustments.

Before administering chemotherapy, doctors often use numbing cream to reduce discomfort. A properly functioning port shouldn’t cause pain through use or during day-to-day activities.

How long is a port left in after chemo?

Once the chemo port is in place and chemotherapy has begun, the port will remain in the body until after treatment is complete. Chemo ports may stay in place for weeks, months or years. The timing of removing the port will depend on how long cancer treatment lasts. It may also be removed if the patient develops an infection, but another one can be implanted later if needed.

Chemo port complications

The insertion and removal of a chemotherapy port is a generally safe procedure. However, like any medical or surgical intervention, some complications are possible.

Complications from chemo port insertion

Infections may develop at the incision site or along the catheter, possibly leading to localized swelling, redness, pain or fever. Doctors usually clean the surgical area thoroughly and may prescribe antibiotics before and after the procedure to reduce the likelihood of infections. Bleeding may occur at the incision site or the catheter insertion point. This is usually minor but may need a little extra care.

Complications from chemo port removal

Adhesions: If the port is left in for a long period of time, the potential for scar tissue formation may result in adhesions (fibrous bands that can form between the port and the underlying tissue). During removal, this scar tissue may cause resistance or difficulty, potentially leading to minor bleeding or discomfort.

Incomplete removal: Sometimes, a portion of the port or catheter may break off during removal, requiring additional surgeries to remove it.

Complications during daily life

Infection: After insertion and while the area around the chemo port is healing, it is important to keep the area clean and dry. Using a waterproof barrier or covering the port site during showers may help you reduce the risk of infection. After it’s healed, patients can shower, bathe and even swim without risking infection.

Catheter damage: Participating in vigorous physical activities can potentially damage the catheter or dislodge the port. The health care team may advise the patient to avoid activities that may put excessive strain on the port area.

Blood clots: Having a catheter in place may increase the risk of blood clots, any swelling after insertion of a catheter should prompt immediate attention by medical professional.

Ports are designed to be inconspicuous and comfortable, allowing patients to go about their daily activities without noticing it’s there. If patients experience issues with their port, they should speak to their health care team for advice.

Chemo port removal

Once the health care provider determines chemotherapy treatment is complete, patients will no longer need the chemo port.

To remove the chemo port, the doctor or radiologist will make a small incision in the skin directly over the port, allowing access for removal. They may use local anesthesia or conscious sedation to keep the patient comfortable during the process. They will gently pull on the catheter to remove it, then close the incision with stitches.

After removal, it’s normal to experience mild discomfort with some swelling or bruising, which should subside in a few days.

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Show references
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