Nowadays, many cancers can be treated with chemotherapy at home through pills, topical products, or home health nurses.
Chemotherapy uses substances that are cytotoxic (toxic to cells) to interrupt the growth and spread of cancer. It’s a type of treatment that can involve many different medications, all with varying functions. They can eliminate cancer cells, shrink tumors, or prevent cancer from spreading.
In the past, you would traditionally receive chemotherapy during an appointment with your oncology team — the specialized cancer professionals overseeing your recovery.
Now, chemotherapy at home is an option for many people. This can be useful for people who may find traditional injections distressing, have challenges getting to treatment locations, or want more privacy during care.
Chemotherapy at home is available for many people living with cancer. Many oral forms of chemotherapy are just as effective as the injectable form.
However, at-home chemotherapy is not available for all cancers that require chemotherapy. It may also not be ideal for your specific needs, even when it is an option.
Your oncologist will work with you to determine which chemotherapy treatments make the most sense based on your particular diagnosis and needs.
Chemotherapy can be done at home — even if you require injections with a syringe or infusions (these are medications delivered intravenously (IV) through a catheter directly into your vein).
If this is a part of your treatment plan, a home health nurse will schedule regular visits where they’ll oversee the administration of the chemotherapy agent.
Depending on the medication and how easy it is to use, it may also be possible for a family member to take on this role with proper training.
However, injection-based chemotherapy at home is the exception. Most people’s chemotherapy at home is done through oral medications or topical products.
Oral and topical chemotherapy
You take oral chemotherapy just like other oral medications. You can take it in pill, capsule, or liquid form on a schedule outlined by your oncologist.
You apply topical products (used on the skin) directly to cancer locations. Both oral and topical chemotherapy agents are potent and can be just as effective as injectable forms.
How often you use them depends on the type of cancer you have, but most are done on a cycle of days, weeks, or months. Chemotherapy agents target cells at certain stages of their life cycle, but they also affect healthy cells.
Because cancer cells replicate more quickly than healthy cells, cycling chemotherapy medications helps target the cancer life cycle while preventing unnecessary damage to noncancerous tissue.
Chemotherapy at home is still chemotherapy. You can expect the same potential side effects you’d have with treatments at the oncologist’s office.
For many people, getting chemotherapy at home is more convenient than having to travel to an appointment for care. It also means you can stay in an environment where you feel safe and comfortable and can maintain your privacy.
Taking a pill or applying a topical product may be less painful than an injection. Oral medication may also be easier if your veins are fragile or if you’re experiencing side effects that make leaving the house difficult.
Drawbacks to consider
Chemotherapy at home isn’t for everyone. It requires you to be diligent about compliance, taking your medications as directed, without fail.
Additionally, taking oral chemotherapy at home may mean fewer visits to the oncologist, so timely communication about side effects is needed to make sure the oncology team is aware of any complications or concerns.
Another drawback is that your insurance company may not cover at-home chemotherapy. At-home chemotherapy can require out-of-pocket costs compared to chemotherapy done at a care facility, which is covered as a medical expense instead of a drug benefit.
It’s important to reach out to your insurance provider and healthcare team to understand your options and expected costs.
Many chemotherapy medications are considered hazardous, which means they can be harmful if you handle them incorrectly or if other people in your household are exposed to them.
If you’re receiving chemotherapy, traces of the medication can be found in everything from your sweat to your urine.
General safety rules to follow for chemotherapy at home include:
- Wash any laundry with urine, feces, sweat, vomit, or other bodily fluids separately from your other laundry. Store it separately from regular laundry, handle it with gloves, and wash these items in hot water. Laundry with chemotherapy medication on it should also be handled in this manner.
- Store all chemotherapy drugs in a dry, safe place, away from places where others may accidentally come into contact. It is not recommended to store your medications in the bathroom, as the moisture might affect them.
- Have a spill kit ready and teach others in your home how to use it.
- Use gloves whenever you handle chemotherapy medications and equipment. This may be during administration, spill cleanup, or disposal.
- After handling medications, wash your hands with soap and water.
- During treatment and 48 hours after your last dose, close the lid of your toilet and flush twice after use. Then wash your hands with soap and water.
- Keep the toilet lid closed to prevent children or pets from coming into contact with the water.
- Sit on the toilet to avoid splashing.
- If possible, you may wish to use a separate bathroom from other family members.
- Dispose of all treatment supplies and empty medication containers in the special waste container for hazardous materials.
- Throw away disposable products like sanitary pads by sealing them in two plastic bags and putting them in the regular garbage.
What can caregivers expect?
Caregivers and others in your household can safeguard themselves by:
- washing any part of their body that comes in contact with your bodily fluids or chemotherapy medications with warm water and soap
- wearing two pair of gloves whenever handling chemotherapy supplies, laundry, or cleaning up bodily fluids
- washing hands, even when gloves are worn
In addition to safety monitoring, you can support the chemotherapy treatment process by:
- learning how to prepare for the arrival of a home health nurse, if you use one
- setting reminders for medication adherence and any routine appointments
- helping monitor timely prescription refills
- learning how to recognize and track side effects
- keeping a list of emergency numbers and the contacts for the cancer specialist overseeing care
- offering transport for any appointments
- communicating with the treatment team about any side effects or concerns
Chemotherapy at home is a convenient option if you’re feeling overwhelmed by constant doctor visits. It offers a way to receive equally effective treatment while you maintain your privacy and comfort at home.
Not all cancers can be treated with at-home chemotherapy, and not all injectable medications have an oral or topical alternative.
Your treatment plan will depend on your diagnosis, overall health, compliance level, and ability to afford any out-of-pocket costs from this approach to care.