Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

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Tubes and IV lines

Tubes and intravenous, or IV, lines allow liquid medicines, fluids, and even nourishment to flow into the body. See the section called “Treatment at home” for more on tubes and IV lines.

Intravenous (IV) lines are thin, flexible, plastic hoses that run from a bottle or bag of medicine into a tiny needle or intravenous catheter (a small, flexible tube) placed in a vein in your body. Some patients have a port (like a small drum) permanently placed in the chest or arm. Special needles are then put into the port to put medicines into it. Some patients have long-term tubes (catheters) that require no needles.

Some medicines are injected into the port or catheter. Other medicines and fluids are given slowly (infused) over minutes or hours. The speed (rate) of the infusion is set by a roller clamp on the tube, by a balloon that squeezes out the medicine, or by a special pump.

Tube feedings give liquid food through a tube placed in the stomach or the small intestine. The tube may go into the stomach through the nose or be put through the skin of the belly and into the stomach.

Oxygen can be given through masks or tubes placed just under the nose (called a nasal cannula). Tubing connects the mask or cannula to the oxygen tank or oxygen concentrator.

An important difference between these types of tubes is that anything that goes in the IV line must be sterile (completely germ-free) to avoid putting germs into the blood and causing infections. IV equipment is used only once. It must be handled very carefully. After it’s used, it’s thrown out and the next time new, sterile equipment is used fresh out of the package.

Tube feedings and oxygen tubes are kept clean, but don’t have to be sterile. Tube feeding or oxygen equipment can be re-used as long as it’s used by the same person. When tube feeding bags need cleaning, liquid soap and water are fine.

People getting chemo, antibiotics, hyperalimentation (hi-per-AL-uh-men-TAY-shun, also called total parenteral nutrition, or TPN), tube feedings, and/or oxygen at home may be faced with many tubes and IV lines that they must learn to keep track of and use safely. At first it may seem confusing, but you can master taking care of many tubes or lines. A home health nurse will help you. Usually, chemo and blood products are given by a nurse who comes to your home. You and your family will be able to manage most other IV medicines. If you can’t, other plans will be made for you to get treatment.

What the patient can do

IVs

  • Focus on only 1 set of tubing at a time. If you get frustrated, take a deep breath and start again.
  • Color code each set of lines with colored tape. For example, red for IV lines, yellow for tube feedings, etc. You might want to use blue tape on oxygen tubes to keep them clearly separate from the IV lines. Keep a record of what each color means, marked in big letters on a nearby wall or headboard.
  • For permanent IV sites (such as Hickman®, Port-a-Cath®, PasPort®, or Infusaport®):
      • Keep extra clamps handy at all times.
      • If a tube breaks and you notice blood leaking out, clamp the tube between your body and the leak and call your cancer team or home health nurse right away.
      • Shower facing away from the showerhead. If you have an electric pump, unplug it before showering or bathing to avoid an electrical hazard. Try to keep the dressing dry, and change it if it gets wet.
      • Watch for redness, swelling, pain, and tenderness at the IV site.
      • Use a calendar to record when you change caps and dressings and to note things like delivery dates and daily weights. Your cancer team will tell you what things you need to keep track of.
      • Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or go to our website at www.cancer.org to learn more about these permanent IV sites, which are often called central venous catheters.
  • Keep the IV site clean and dry.
  • Avoid the temptation to speed up your IV medicines or fluids. Many can harm you if they go in too fast.
  • Wash your hands well with soap and water before touching the IV site.
  • Check the IV site daily:
      • Look for any tenderness, pain, redness, burning, swelling, or warmth; any slowing of the flow rate of the IV; or drainage (bloody, yellowish, or clear). Any of these might mean the site is getting infected or clogged.
      • Be sure the tape is holding the IV in place and the dressing is clean and dry.
      • Take your temperature each day to see if you have a fever. (See the section called “Fever.”)
      • If you notice any of the above symptoms, take off the dressing, check the IV site, and tell your cancer team or home health nurse what you found.
  • If the IV comes out or the site starts to bleed, call your cancer team or home health nurse right away.
  • Don’t do things that may pull out the IV or rub on the dressing.

Hyperalimentation (TPN or total parenteral nutrition)

  • Your home care nurse will teach you exactly how to begin and end each infusion.
  • If you find that you’re having trouble sleeping because you need to go to the bathroom often, TPN may be infused during the day or early evening.
  • Infuse TPN in a room near a bathroom so that you don’t have to carry the pump too far. Use a night light so that if you need to get up at night, you don’t trip over or pull the tubing.
  • Most pumps are battery powered. Check with the home health nurse about how long the pump can run before new batteries are needed. Be sure that you have enough batteries for your type of pump, and know how to put them in.
  • Keep a clean, dry work area for supplies.
  • If possible, use a separate place in the refrigerator (or a separate refrigerator if you have an extra one) for IV solutions.
  • Throw away needles and syringes in a metal coffee can with a lid, in a bleach bottle, or in a used needle container provided by the home health nurse. Keep the container out of the reach of children, pets, and others. Your home health nurse will take it when it’s full.
  • Always check the expiration date on all your supplies.

Tube feedings

  • The tubes used for tube feedings may be short or long term. The nasogastric (NG) tube, which runs from nose to stomach, is short term. Jejunostomy tubes (J-tubes) or gastrostomy tubes (G-tubes), which are surgically placed in the upper intestine or stomach and come out through the skin on the belly, are for long-term use.
  • Give tube feedings at room temperature. Most don’t need to be refrigerated.
  • Check the placement of NG tubes and give tube feedings as instructed.
  • Cap off the tube as instructed.
  • Rinse tubes and bag with water after the feeding is completed.
  • Feedings can also be given with large syringes instead of bags and tubing. Be sure you are comfortable using whichever method you are taught.
  • Check the skin around the tubes each day for redness, drainage, or skin problems.
  • Apply petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) to the nostrils if an NG tube is in place.
  • Change the tape at the NG tube every other day. Be sure the nostril and skin around the nose is not sore, red, or painful.
  • Always keep the feeding tubes securely taped in place. If the tube seems to be coming out, tape it in place but don’t use it. Call your cancer team or home health nurse to find out what needs to be done.
  • Weigh yourself each day and write down dates and weights.

Oxygen

  • Be sure you know how to turn the oxygen on and off and set the flow rate. Never increase the oxygen flow above the prescribed level.
  • The nurse will show you how to use the oxygen mask or nasal cannula.
  • Use a water-based lubricant, rather than petroleum jelly, on the lips and cheeks.
  • If the nasal cannula rubs your upper lip, you can put a small piece of gauze or fabric under it for padding.
  • Keep a new tank of oxygen on hand at all times. Even if you use an oxygen machine (concentrator), you’ll need a small tank when you leave the house and during power failures.
  • If you use a tank, be sure it’s attached to a stable cart so it won’t fall or roll.
  • Don’t smoke or go near sparks or flames while using oxygen. Keep sparks and flames away from tanks, oxygen machines, and tubing.

What caregivers can do

  • Learn as much as you can about how to use the tubes and equipment, and practice while the home health nurse is there to watch you. You might need to do these tasks when the patient can’t.
  • Help the patient. At first, you’ll probably both feel more comfortable if you do these treatments together.
  • Keep home health nurses’ phone numbers handy, and call when you have questions or problems.
  • Be sure that the patient keeps all appointments.
  • Watch for confusion, especially at night.

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Has redness, swelling, drainage, pain, tenderness, or warmth at an IV site or at the site of a permanent IV access device
  • Has a temperature of 100.5° F or higher when taken by mouth
  • Is bleeding from the IV or access site
  • Can’t flush or use their catheter or tube
  • Becomes confused, disoriented, or unusually drowsy
  • Becomes more short of breath
  • Develops a cough
  • Has diarrhea for more than 1 day

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