Chemotherapy (chemo) can be delivered in many different ways. How it’s delivered depends on a variety of factors, including the type of cancer being treated, how far the cancer has spread, and the types of chemo drugs needed.

Chemotherapy (chemo) is a powerful type of medication that’s used to destroy cancer cells in the body. It’s typically used alongside other treatments to shrink tumors, prevent cancer from spreading, or reduce symptoms caused by cancer.

There are several categories of chemo drugs and a wide range of different chemo drugs. The drugs included in a chemo treatment plan depend on:

  • the type of cancer being treated
  • how far the cancer has spread
  • whether you have any coexisting health conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes

There are different delivery methods for chemo drugs, which this article will explain in more detail.

Chemotherapy (chemo) is often thought of as an infusion that’s given directly into a vein. While intravenous (IV) chemo is commonly used for many types of cancer, it’s just one method of chemo delivery that’s available today.

Chemo can be administered in a number of different ways, depending on the type and location of the cancer. In some cases, a combination of chemo drugs may be used. These drugs may be delivered in different ways.

Intravenous chemotherapy

With IV chemo, the chemo drugs are delivered directly into your bloodstream through a very thin tube called a “catheter.”

According to the American Cancer Society, IV chemo can be delivered in several different ways, including:

  • IV push: This method involves pushing the medication quickly through a syringe into the catheter.
  • IV infusion: The chemo medication is controlled by an IV pump and flows at a controlled rate into the catheter, a process that may last several hours.
  • Continuous infusion: The chemo drugs are slowly infused over the course of 1 or 2 days, under the guidance of an electronic IV pump.

For people who need to receive IV chemo frequently for an extended period of time, a central venous catheter may be inserted into a large vein in the arm or chest. This catheter may remain in place until the chemo course has been completed.

Oral chemotherapy

Oral chemotherapy (chemo) drugs are used to treat many kinds of cancer. These drugs come in a variety of forms, such as:

  • pills
  • capsules
  • liquids

One advantage of oral chemo is that you can usually take this medication at home, but, because this is strong medication, you’ll need to take special precautions to ensure these drugs are stored and handled safely.

It’s also essential that you know exactly how much of the drug to take, how often to take the drug, and for what length of time. Not following the correct dose instructions can affect how well the chemo works.

Injected chemotherapy

Chemo medication can also be injected directly into a muscle, under your skin, or into a tumor.

For example, a chemo drug can be put into a syringe and then injected into a muscle, which is known as “intramuscular chemo.” Because the chemo is absorbed into your body more slowly compared with IV chemo, the effects of the medication may last longer.

Chemo medication can also be injected directly into a tumor if the tumor can be safely reached with a needle, which is known as “intralesional chemo.”

With subcutaneous chemo, the chemo drug is injected under your skin. Common areas for this type of delivery include the skin of the abdomen (stomach area), upper arm, and thigh.

Topical chemotherapy

If you have superficial skin cancer that affects just the top layers of your skin, a doctor may recommend applying chemo medication directly onto your skin.

Basal cell skin cancer and squamous cell carcinoma are two types of skin cancer that may be treated by rubbing a chemo cream into the affected areas.

Other methods of chemotherapy delivery

Other delivery methods for chemo include the following:

  • Intrathecal chemo: This method entails delivering chemo drugs via a catheter into the cerebrospinal fluid inside the spinal canal.
  • Intra-arterial chemo: Chemo medication is delivered directly into the artery that supplies blood to the tumor.
  • Intracavitary chemo: This method involves delivering chemo drugs through a catheter into an enclosed part of the body, such as the abdominal cavity (intraperitoneal chemotherapy), bladder (intravesical chemotherapy), or chest cavity.

Some people may experience pain during the actual administration of chemo when a needle or catheter is involved. For example, you may experience pain at the injection site or the site where a central venous catheter or port is inserted.

One of the possible side effects of chemo is peripheral neuropathy — damage to the nerves that carry sensations to and from your arms and legs. Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy may include a tingling, burning, or numb feeling in your hands and feet.

In some cases, peripheral neuropathy can cause severe pain. This pain may affect your ability to walk, climb stairs, hold or pick up objects, or button your clothes.

Research suggests that chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy can last 6 months or longer after chemo treatment is done.

There are many variables when it comes to how long chemo treatment will take. The length of treatment will depend on different factors, such as:

  • the type of cancer being treated
  • the cancer stage
  • the chemo drugs used
  • how your body responds to chemo
  • treatment goals

Chemo is typically given in cycles. A cycle involves chemo treatment that’s followed by a period of rest.

For example, you may have chemo treatment every day for 1 week, followed by 2 weeks of rest with no chemo. This gives your body a chance to recover before the next cycle starts.

The 1 week of treatment, followed by 2 weeks of rest, makes up one cycle. One cycle is 3 weeks in length. You’ll likely have several cycles of chemo treatment.

Chemo is often given alongside other treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, or immunotherapy.

Chemo is a powerful treatment that’s designed to destroy rapidly growing cancer cells, which tend to divide and grow faster than other cells in your body.

Chemo isn’t a single type of treatment delivered in a single way. It can be delivered in many different ways. How it’s delivered will depend on the type of cancer being treated, how far the cancer has spread, and the type of chemo drugs used.

If you need chemo, an oncologist can give you more information about how chemo will be delivered and how long the treatment may take.