Receiving cancer medications

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Cancer treatment requires different types of medication, each of which may be given in a different way. Lean about the most common ways to receive chemotherapy and other medications and what to expect.

Key points

  • Medications can be received in different ways including oral (tablets, capsules, liquids), subcutaneous injection, intramuscular injection, intravenous injection and intrathecal injection.
  • It is important to always check with the health-care team to make sure that you are taking medications in the correct way and if there is anything you need to avoid.

During your treatment, you will need to take different types of medication. You may need to receive them in different ways, for example orally or through an injection. Chemotherapy is the most common cancer medication. This section outlines the most common ways you can receive your chemotherapy and other medications so you know what to expect.


This involves taking medications (tablets, capsules or liquids) by mouth. If you’re having trouble taking all your medications by mouth, you can ask your pharmacists or nurses for some tips.


Always check with your health-care team about the best way to take your medications and if you need to avoid any foods or juices.

Subcutaneous injection

Subcutaneous (say: sub-kew-TAY-nee us) means under the skin. Getting medication this way means getting it through a small needle that goes just under your skin. Some chemotherapy may be given this way. Treatments that may be given this way include blood thinners or insulin.

Intramuscular injection

This is a way of giving medication into the muscle, such as when you get a vaccine. Intramuscular injections may hurt a bit, so make you sure you ask your nurse or child life specialist how to make them hurt less. There are also distraction techniques you can use to help with these painful procedures.

Intravenous injection

Most of your chemotherapy medications will be given directly into your vein. This is called intravenous administration (IV for short). Sometimes you’ll have an IV in your arm or hand. For long-term treatment and for most chemotherapy, a central line is usually recommended. A central line is a semi-permanent IV, usually higher up in your arm (called a PICC) or on your chest (called a CVL or port).

Central lines stay in for months or even years. They’re easier for repeated IV access and bloodwork ("pokes") and receiving drugs that might irritate your veins. Because they stay in for a long period of time, they need maintenance and care. If you go home with one of these lines, a nurse may come to visit you to help you take care of it. You and your parents can also learn how to do dressing and cap changes.

Intrathecal injection

You might sometimes need to have some medications injected directly into the fluid that surrounds your spinal column. This is done by a doctor, during a lumbar puncture.

After your doctor removes some spinal fluid, they will inject the chemotherapy. You will be given numbing medication around the puncture site so you don’t feel the needle go in. This is uncomfortable, but it’s really important that you do not move.

In many hospitals, you may be given some medication to help you relax or sleep during the procedure. Otherwise, you can work with your child life specialist or nurse to come up with ways to distract yourself - just as long as they don’t involve moving!

Review the handout Five Questions to Ask About My Medicine. It will help you be better prepared to discuss your medications with your health-care team.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019