I used to hate needles. I was completely phobic. I dreaded annual flu shots and almost had a nervous breakdown when I had my first IV. Alas, needles—and IVs—became a regular part of my life once I entered cancer treatment.
If you’re starting treatment and are feeling anxious about the IV’s that are sure to be ahead, the American Cancer Society website has a good overview of some IV basics.
A few tips from my own experience:
• Push away that fear of the needle. Remember, the needle stick takes less than a second. You can get through it. I decided that I would become a nut-ball if I held on to my needle phobia. Gradually, I let it go. Now, my heart doesn’t race a bit when I see a needle. Honest.
• If you’re going to need a lot of infusions, or daily medications, or if your veins collapse easily or are difficult to locate, you have alternatives. Doctors can fix you up with an implantable “port,” surgically tunneled under the skin of the chest or upper arm. Needles can be inserted into the port without poking. Another alternative is a “Hickman catheter,” sometimes called a “central line,” in which a tube is inserted into a large vein near your collarbone. As with a port, giving medications through the central line avoids needle pokes. It’s vitally important to keep both ports and central lines sterile, and to immediately report any redness or soreness around the insertion site. These devices connect directly to your bloodstream. Blood infections are every bit as life threatening as cancer, so don’t risk it.
• Try to make sure that a nurse will be the one inserting your line. Doctors know how to do it, but they just don’t do it as often as nurses. Nurses are much more likely to get the line started with a minimum of fuss and pain. One of the worst medical experiences I’ve ever had was having a sweet medical student try to start my IV: He had to try three times. Each time, he kept moving the needle around. It felt like he was digging around in my hand with the needle. Ugh.
• If your IV starts to hurt, or becomes uncomfortable, nicely ask the nurse to re-do it. Nurses don’t like to do this, because it’s a hassle. But you’re a cancer patient, and you’re enduring enough discomfort. A sore IV site can be fixed, and should be.
• Nurses most commonly site IV on the back of the hand or the forearm. When your nurse asks you where you’d like the IV placed, consider how much you’ll be moving during your infusion or your procedure. For instance, if you’re going to be using your hands (knitting, typing or whatever), ask for a forearm site. The more you move the place where the IV is, the more likely it will twinge or become sore.
• Especially during infusions, plan ahead for bathroom breaks. In my experience, medicines are almost always delivered with a liter bag of saline solution. All that liquid is going to make your bladder full. Negotiating a hallway, a door, and a bathroom while pulling an IV pole alongside is a comical medical waltz that takes more time. Plan for it.