Everything you need to know about ……….. Ports. From the patient’s perspective.
So you have cancer and your doc starts talking about this thing called a port. No, unfortunately I’m not talking about the ports where ships go. I’m talking about a mediport for chemotherapy.
People keep asking me questions about my port — mainly people starting or going through chemotherapy. People seem to be more curious about the port than anything else (I even find lots of people searching about them arrive here through random searches of Google or Yahoo). So … Here’s what I can tell you about ports. As always, your mileage may vary, ask medical people when you have questions, etc.
What is a port?
A port is short for “mediport.” A port is a small device that is implanted under your skin so that medicine may be delivered directly into your blood system. Blood can also be drawn out of the port to be sampled. The port is sometimes also called a venous access catheter.
Why would I want or need a port?
There are a few reasons you might want or need a port.
1) Certain chemotherapy drugs (including those used to treat Hodgkin’s Disease) can cause serious irritation to the veins when they are infused. When the drug is injected through the port rather than into another vein (such as one in your arm), the drug doesn’t directly enter the skin and the likelihood to cause irritation is drastically reduced. Of the four drugs in ABVD, the “D” drug (Dacarbazine) is especially known to cause pain when given through a peripheral IV.
2) Frequent use of the peripheral veins (i.e. those in your arms and hands) can cause scarring and make the veins difficult or even impossible to access. The port “saves” a lot of wear and tear on these veins. Most blood draws and other kind of treatments can also be given through the port. (For example, if you ever needed IV antibiotics for an infection.)
3) If you are getting frequent treatment or need frequent blood draws, a port (as opposed to another device) allows you to swim, shower, and basically maintain regular activities. I’ve had a PICC line for another reason, and believe me: a port is much, much easier to deal with.
How does it work?
The port is placed completely under the skin, usually on the chest below the collarbones, but other locations can be used as well if desired or necessary. The port forms a small bump under the skin. This raised part is called the port’s reservoir. The reservoir has a plastic membrane or bubble of self-sealing rubber in it called a septum. The septum leads directly into a large vein or artery.
A nurse uses a special needle called a Huber (or “butterfly”) needle to “access” the port. The nurse places the Huber needle through the reservoir and into the septum. This allows access to the large vein. The nurse can then either draw blood, inject medication, or simply leave the needle in place for future use.
What does it look like?
I took some pictures of my port to show people what it looks like. I’ve found most people are really curious and have never seen a port before. I had no clue what one looked like and had trouble finding any pictures — so hopefully this helps “explain” what a port looks like and gives you more of an idea of what to expect. (If you’re like me, you like to know EXACTLY what you’re in for.)
First, this is what a port looks like when it’s actually hooked up and accessed. The dressing is placed over the top of it to keep it clean and dry. The clear tube coming out of the port is what gets hooked up to the IV machine or to the syringe for chemo. I took this picture on one of the few days I actually had my port left accessed at home. This is what the port looks like all hooked up for chemo or any other infusion. A port can be used not only to deliver chemo, but for routine blood draws and even to just give you nice drugs like fluids. When it is not hooked up, it looks like a little bump underneath the skin about the size of a nickel with a scar above it. That’s it. (When the port is accessed, you can’t get it wet. But sometimes I would have to see my oncologist the day before chemo and he’d draw labs … to avoid the second stick the next morning when I got chemo, I’d sometimes leave the port accessed over night.)
What does a port itself actually look like?
A port looks something like the image to the left. This is the reservoir part that is implanted into your chest. Ports come in different sizes. The standard adult size port is about the size of a quarter. I had a pediatric port because the lymph nodes in my chest were so large that a standard size port wouldn’t fit. My port is about the size of a dime.
There is a catheter (the long tube like extension attached to the reservoir) attached to the port that leads from the port itself into a large vein or artery.
If you have a choice (you may or may not…), you may want to consider putting your port on the right side. That way when you drive, the seatbelt will be less likely to bother it. (That said, mine was on the left, and the seatbelt never really bothered me.)
How long can you keep a port?
A port can be kept indefinitely. Reasons to remove a port include problems with it (such as infection) or simply because it isn’t needed anymore.
When not used regularly, a port needs to be occasionally flushed with heparin to keep it functioning properly. I kept my port for almost three years and had no problem with it.
How did they put it in?
My port was placed using just local anesthetic. It was done in a surgery room in the radiology department. The surgeon made two incisions — one on the right side of my chest below the collar bone and a second incision in my neck on the same side. The chest incision was the “pocket” where the port itself was placed. The second smaller incision was for tunneling the catheter.
Did it hurt to put it in?
Not really. It was more unpleasant than painful. I had the option for more anesthesia than just local, but to be honest for me the risk of anesthesia would outweigh the mild unpleasantness factor.
The painful part was injecting the lidocaine. That felt like getting stung over and over by a bee. Pleasant? No. Painful? A little, but totally doable.
When the surgeon was actually working on the port, it felt like he was tugging at me. Not painful, just strange.
Does accessing the port hurt?
Accessing the port still requires a needle stick. It hurts probably just as much as getting an IV in the arm, but the advantage of the port for me is there was only one time that required two sticks to get good access. I have lost count of how many times I’ve needed to be stuck more than once for an IV or blood draw.
What does the scar look like?
See above. Although there was also an incision on my neck, I don’t seem to have any scar there. That incision was quite small.
Does having a port effect your daily life?
I ran with my port, I showered … I usually forgot that it was there except for when a seat belt occasionally rubs up against it or something. I like the port because my veins aren’t very good and the port saves a lot of needle sticks.
Anyway, I hope this helps demystify the port!