Ports were developed expressly for the administration of chemotherapy to cancer patients. They addressed a couple of specific issues in cancer care.
Chemo can be very damaging to blood vessels. Many drugs are caustic and can cause sclerosis of the blood vessels and damage to soft tissues around the vessels. Port lines terminate in very large blood vessels close to the heart so the risk of damage was much lower.
Chemo patients are also at a significantly increased risk for infection. Ports are implanted between the skin and the muscle so they are entirely within the borders of the body. In order to use the port, you push a very large needle through the skin and into the port. This is called accessing the port. When you are done using the port, the needle is removed and the port no longer has contact with the outside environment. They were designed to be accessed occasionally for treatment and to be deaccessed as soon as that treatment was done.
Like so many other things in medicine, ports were not designed with mast cell patients in mind. I am part of a cohort of patients that currently have ports for chronic, continuous use. My port is accessed all the time. There is a needle going through my skin and into my port all the time. The needle is changed once a week and I take the needle out for a few hours sometimes if I am going swimming or taking a bath. Otherwise, the needle is never out.
My port is a bit unusual in that it is very difficult to get the needle into the port without going straight in through one spot. Most patients who have accessed ports move the needle to a different spot when they change it weekly. This allows the skin to heal a bit between accesses. This has never worked for me. For this reason, over the last three years, I have developed a literal hole in my chest over my port where the needle is placed.
Last spring, I accidentally tore the needle out of the port. It made a hole that was already pretty big much bigger. I started deaccessing for a few hours a couple of times a week to try and help the skin to heal. I slathered cromolyn cream all over it and hoped for the best.
In June, I had a temporary IV line called a midline placed in my arm so that I could stop using the port for a few weeks and give my skin a rest. Unfortunately, that didn’t go well. Aside from all the pain in the ass things about having a line in your arm (which I had forgotten), using IV Benadryl through the short line caused phlebitis, a form of vasculitis that affected the vein where the line terminated. I was diluting it to a ridiculous extent (1:50) and it was STILL causing really severe pain both while I was pushing it and for hours afterward. We pulled the midline after a week.
The result of always accessing in the same spot is not just a hole but a hole surrounded by thick scar tissue. My nurse was able to get it accessed at different angles by pushing through the scar tissue but it was shockingly painful. The port was getting inflamed and it was getting to a point where the inflammation looked just like a pocket infection. It wasn’t infected but the fact that I could no longer tell the difference was alarming.
The pain surprised me. I can tolerate a lot of pain. This is unbelievable. The hole is now large enough that my body recognizes it as a wound. I have been really tired and achy lately and I think it’s because my body is expending energy trying to close this hole.
I did not expect the emotional effects of this situation. Memories from 2014 keep cropping up. My life is unrecognizable compared to the life I had when it was placed. I knew it was necessary but I was really nervous. I didn’t like having a PICC line but I was finally used to and troubleshoot it without panicking. I was worried that the port would get infected or I wouldn’t be able to access it myself. It was the coda to a year of abysmal health.
It’s funny to reminisce about how anxious I was about getting it placed because my port is my lifeline now. It gives me confidence. It makes me feel secure. I have travelled to the other side of the world with this port. It has allowed me to work full time. It has saved me countless ambulance rides and admissions. It is part of me now, a part that has given me back a lot of my life. A part I don’t want to use.
Because we are concerned that the hole makes me much more susceptible to infection, we decided to just cut our losses and pull the port and place a new one on the other side of my chest. I will be getting this done in the next few weeks. I think things will stabilize without the inflammation.
For me, Septembers will always be tied to pumpkin flavors, the smell of falling leaves, harvest moons, and ports.