Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

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Treatment at home

Treatment for cancer is sometimes given at home rather than in the hospital or clinic. Pills, intravenous (or IV) chemo, IV antibiotics, shots given under the skin, (called subcutaneous injections and also known as sub-Q injections), shots given into a muscle, (intramuscular injections, also called IM injections), and other treatments are some of those that can be given at home. Ask your cancer team if this is an option for you.

It’s important to take medicines as prescribed and watch for side effects. Sometimes a home care nurse or IV therapy (infusion) nurse will come to your home to give you medicines. Or they might teach you and your caregiver how to give home treatments.

In some cases, home treatments can’t be done due to problems with health insurance. Still, patients who can’t make frequent visits to the office or clinic might be able to get some kinds of home care. Call your health insurance company to find out more.

What the patient can do

Pills

  • Take your pills exactly as you were told to.
  • You may have to set an alarm for the middle of the night so you can take your pills at the right time. Put the pill dose and a glass of water on your bedside table so you don’t have to get up.
  • If you take pills only once a day, you might want to try taking them just before bedtime to avoid side effects, such as nausea. Check with your cancer team about the best time and way to take each medicine.
  • Ask your cancer team about any side effects you may have and ways to control them. (For instance, if your pills could cause nausea, should you take them before meals? Is there something else you can take that would help?)
  • Keep all medicines out of the reach of children and pets.
  • Check with your cancer team or pharmacist before you cut or crush your pills. Some drugs can be dangerous if the pills are broken.

Intravenous (IV) medicine

  • A home health or infusion nurse will come to your home to give drugs intravenously (into a vein) or to teach you and your family how to do so.
  • See the section called “Tubes and IV lines” for more about caring for the IV site.

Injections (under the skin or into a muscle)

  • Wash your hands well with soap and water before starting.
  • Give shots as instructed by your cancer team.
  • Check to be sure that the dosage in the syringe is correct.
  • Wipe your skin with alcohol and let it dry for 30 seconds before injecting.
  • If the needle touches anything that isn’t sterile before you use it, throw the needle away, put a new one on the syringe, and start over.
  • Use a different place on the body for each shot.
  • For shots under the skin, use a site at least 1 inch away from the place you used before.
  • For intramuscular injections (shots into a muscle), ask for a picture or chart of places on the body that are safe to use.
  • Check old injection sites for signs of infection, including redness, warmth, swelling, pain, or oozing. A temperature of 100.5° F or higher when taken by mouth may be a sign of infection.
  • Throw away used needles and syringes in an empty coffee can with a lid or an empty plastic bleach bottle. Take the full container to the clinic for proper disposal. Or ask the home health nurse if you can get a needle disposal box. Keep the needle container away from children, pets, and visitors.

What caregivers can do

  • Learn how to give the medicines in case the patient can’t do it.
  • If you help with shots, be careful not to stick yourself with the needles. Put the used needle container near the patient before you start. Drop the needle and syringe in as soon as you’re finished. Don’t put the cap back on the needle before throwing it away.
  • Keep the cancer team’s office numbers (including emergency numbers) handy.
  • If you have a home health nurse who helps with injections, keep their phone number nearby in case you have problems or questions.

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Is about to need a prescription refill
  • Spills or loses medicine, or vomits a dose
  • Learns that any person, other than themselves, has taken their medicine
  • Misses a dose
  • Has redness, warmth, swelling, drainage, or pain at any injection site
  • Has a fever of 100.5° F or higher when taken by mouth
  • Has uncomfortable side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or pain
  • Can’t give themselves the shots or take the pills for any reason
  • Notices itching, dizziness, shortness of breath, hives (raised itchy skin welts), or other signs of an allergic reaction after a taking any medicine. If this happens, call emergency medical services (911) before calling the cancer team.

Last Medical Review: 06/08/2015
Last Revised: 06/08/2015