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Why does my child need a catheter for chemotherapy?



A catheter is a soft plastic tube placed under the skin. It allows your child’s medical team to access a vein to give chemotherapy without having to insert a needle day after day. The catheter can be used over and over. It stays in place until chemotherapy treatments end.

Having a catheter has several benefits:

  • Your child’s hand or arm does not become more and more sore from repeated sticks several days in a row.
  • It can make the months of chemo much less stressful and painful.
  • It allows your child to get more than one type of chemo drug at a time.

Your child may need continuous infusion, a process of getting chemo slowly over one or more days. When your child has a catheter, you may be able to do this at home instead of staying a long time in the hospital. 

What will it be like for my child to get a catheter?

Several types of catheters are used to make getting chemotherapy easier. They vary based on where they are placed and how they are used. The kind your child gets depends on how long the chemo will last, the type of drugs he or she gets, and your child’s size and activity level.

You can ask anyone on your child’s cancer team about catheters. You’ll decide together which type is best for your child, and you and your child will give your informed consent before it is placed. 

The three most common kinds of catheters

  1. PICC line is inserted into one of the large veins near the bend of the elbow on the inside of the arm. While a PICC line is placed, your child will get a local anesthetic to numb the skin and decrease the pain.
  2. central line  is inserted into a large vein under your child’s collarbone or in the neck. The line threads under the skin and comes out of your child’s body at the upper chest. The chest opening is where the chemo drugs go in.
    • Before a central line is placed, your child will get general anesthesia, which is medicine to make him or her sleepy. The area will hurt for a few days, and there will be a few stitches where the tube goes in and where it exits.
    • Total healing takes 2 to 4 weeks. Someone on your team will show you how to take care of your child when the central line is bandaged. Once the bandage is off, you’ll learn how to keep it clean.
    • With either a PICC line or central line, the staff can use the catheter to take or give blood or IV fluids, so your child is spared extra pokes with a needle. They can also use the catheter to inject other medicines or nutrition. 
  3. port-o-cath or implantable port is entirely under your child’s skin. You may be able to see or feel a small bump where it is in your child’s chest or upper arm, but you won’t see the tip of the port-o-cath. Your child will get general anesthesia while the surgeon places it.
    • Once the port-o-cath is in, it requires less maintenance. Kids can bathe or swim when it is not accessed. However, to put drugs or anything else into a port-o-cath, the doctor or nurse still must use a needle. Your child’s nurse may rub a cream over the skin to numb the area first to help decrease the pain.

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