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What to Know About Ports

What to Know About Ports

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21


Before chemotherapy, you probably never thought about obscure medical devices, but once you enter the cancer treatment world, the words port-a-catheter (port for short) will probably become part of your vocabulary, whether you decide to get one or not. 
A medical port is, essentially, an efficiency tool: A disc about the size of a quarter, an implanted port is placed just under your skin, typically near your collarbone, and threads intravenously to the large vein in your upper chest. Once implanted, your port can be used for anything that would otherwise require an IV line (so, blood draws as well as chemo), saving you from a new arm stick each time you need something done intravenously. 
Ports are very common for patients who are receiving chemo (especially those with longer treatment courses), and your doctor can help you decide whether and when getting one is the right choice for you. As with any procedure, you’ll want to verify coverage with your insurance carrier ahead of time and get clear on any out-of-pocket charges (as with all things insurance, ask for the info in writing).

How do I get a port?

Having your port put in is a relatively simple procedure. Most likely, you’ll stay awake the whole time (often with a sedative—ask your doctor ahead of time what their protocol for you will be), and your upper chest will be numbed with local anesthetic for the implantation. In rare cases, however, you may receive a dose of general anesthesia. The procedure itself takes about an hour, and you’ll leave with a small (about 2 inches long) shallow incision, sealed with dissolving sutures, through which the port was placed. Expect some soreness afterwards, but nothing too intense. For about a week, your port has to stay totally dry, which makes showering a no-go, so opt for baths and consider plastic-wrapping your port site with Saran Wrap. After that, you’re good to resume all your normal activities.

Why would I want a port?

Your port can stay in for as long as you and your doctor want—from weeks to years (on average a port can be punctured ~2,000 times)—and its biggest selling point is the decrease in pain from treatments. Instead of the countless IVs for blood draws and medication that you’ll experience over a course of chemo, all your medication and blood testing can be done through the port. According to one study, 90% of people are happy with their choice to get a port. Because you know exactly where the injection site is, you can use a numbing cream like LMX 4 (apply it to your port site an hour ahead of your appointment) for a pain-free needle insertion. Some chemo drugs can only be administered through a port—if this is your situation, your doc will let you know.

What are the downsides?

Seatbelts can be uncomfortable (pads can help), and backpacks and cross-body bags are no longer your friends. You may get to decide what side of your body you’d like your port on and if so, think through how you navigate the world. For example, whether you drive more or are a passenger more affects which part of your body is most often covered with a seatbelt—and you may want to choose the opposite side for your port. When your port is removed, you’ll keep the scar (though it’s minimal and most survivors don’t find this a concern), and some people do experience low-grade residual discomfort after removal.

Caring for your port

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Your port does require some maintenance. Once your incision heals, you can wash your port site with soap and water just like the rest of your skin, and you should do so regularly to keep it clean and sanitary at home. Before and after every treatment, the line must be flushed with saline (your nurse will do this for you), and if you go more than a month without accessing your port, it will need a maintenance flush (this happens at the hospital or clinic, though sometimes your nurse can also teach you how to do it at home).

What else should I know?

If you decide to go for it and get a port, there are great products and resources that will make #portlife more livable, from easy-access tops and lidocaine cream to scar gel to treat your incision after your port is removed.

How do I decide?

Only you can decide whether a port is the right choice for your unique circumstances. You’ll want to talk at length with your doctor (bringing in a written list of questions and concerns will help you get all the info you need), and your decision will be informed by your diagnosis, treatment protocol, and other personal factors. It’s also a great idea, while considering your options, to seek the experience of someone who has had a port before—if your treatment center offers peer to peer support groups, they can be great places to ask, and if not, check out online groups like Cancer Care

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Ports:

  1. What are the risks to having the port implanted?
  2. How long do you anticipate I will have this port in? 
  3. How do I care for the port? 
  4. How do I ensure the port is flushed as needed? 
  5. What are the criteria for and process for getting the port removed when it's time? 
  6. If I have the port removed, can another be placed in the future, or is it better to leave it in for the long-term? 
  7. What are your specific recommendations for me around whether to get a port or not?
  8. If I do decide to get a port, what side should I get it on and how should I think about that decision?
  9. Which treatments will the port be used for?
  10. If I do not get a port, what will the alternative be and what are the pros and cons of that?

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at support@jasperhealth.com.