Living With a Port

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 08, 2018
3 min read

A medical port is no bigger than a quarter. But if you have advanced colon cancer, it’s likely changed the way you get chemotherapy.

The port gets placed under your skin, usually near your collarbone. A soft tube called a catheter connects it to a large vein above your heart. Medicine and fluids injected into the port flow from this vein into your bloodstream.

This means you can get chemotherapy without having an IV placed in a vein for each treatment. And since most blood tests can be drawn from the port, you won’t need constant needle pricks in your arm.  A port is also less likely than an IV to leak medicine that can damage your skin and other tissues.

Chemotherapy through a port may hurt less, too, according to Smitha Krishnamurthi, MD, a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. 

“[People] know where the needle will be placed, so they can numb the port by applying lidocaine cream to the skin over the port before they come in,” Krishnamurthi says. “That way, the port is numb when it’s time for the nurse to access it with a needle.”

For a lot of folks with advanced cancer, a port means they can have treatments at home instead of the hospital.

“We can’t send [people] home with chemotherapy running in through an IV in the arm because that could easily become dislodged -- in their sleep, for example,” Krishnamurthi says. “The port provides a safe, reliable way to have chemotherapy infusing at home.”

For most people, a port’s pretty simple to live with. Once your incision heals, you can shower, swim, and do anything else you feel up to doing.  You don’t need a bandage on your port when you’re not using it, and there’s no dressing to change.

You don’t have to change the way you eat, sleep, or drive, either. Seat belts can be a problem because they rub where the port is. But a seat belt cover, port pillow, or even a soft towel are easy fixes. And though you can feel and see the port’s small bump, most other people can’t.

Krishnamurthi says many folks are happy with their ports.

But ports can also cause serious problems. Be sure you know what to watch for, what to do about it, and when to call your cancer care team.

Blood clots: One can block blood flow in the vein or travel to your lungs. Sometimes, it can be fatal.

Jean Connors, MD, who directs the anticoagulation management service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, both in Boston, says just having cancer makes blood clots more likely.

“Cancer causes inflammation and compresses blood vessels -- both risk factors for blood clots,” Connors says.

Having a port raises your chance of a clot even more.

You can help prevent clots by making sure your port’s flushed regularly when you’re not using it. Flushing means putting saline, the anti-clotting drug heparin, or both through the port and the catheter. This should be done by a nurse.

“For some ports, it’s recommended you have flushes every 4 to 6 weeks. Other ports only require a flush every 90 days,” Krishnamurthi says. Your cancer care team should be able to tell you which kind you have.

A clot can also cause swelling in your arms, shoulder, neck, or head. If you have this, call your doctor right away. Clots can usually be treated with blood thinners, but your port may need to come out.

Ports can lead to an infection in the skin over the port or in your bloodstream. This can be very serious, even life-threatening. Be sure you and everyone who touches your port washes their hands carefully. Watch for redness, swelling, pain, or drainage around the port. Let your cancer care team know if you have any of these or are dizzy, have chest pain, or have a fever.

For some people, the biggest drawback is how a port makes them feel about themselves. It can be a constant reminder that they have cancer.

Whether you get a port is up to you. Whether to take the port out after treatment is also up to you. Krishnamurthi says folks with early-stage colorectal cancer tend to want it out. Others like to stick with it until they see how things go. And some are so tired of being poked and prodded, they decide to keep it forever.