Safe Storage and Disposal of Cancer Medications

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2015

Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: Safe Storage and Disposal of Cancer Medications, adapted from this content.

During and after cancer treatment, people may have one or more medications to take at home. These powerful medications can be extremely harmful if someone other than the patient takes them. Therefore, the patient and caregiver need to know the safest ways to store and dispose of specific medications.

General tips

  • Consider storing your medications separately from those of your other family members. You could keep them on a different shelf or in a different cabinet or drawer.

  • Store your prescriptions in a safe, cool, dry place out of the sight and reach of children and/or pets.

  • Keep all of your medication in a place with good lighting so you can always read the label and take the correct amount.

  • Store your medication in the container it came in. This helps you know which one is which and keeps the information about how often to take it right at your fingertips. Always keep the lid tightly closed. Consider using child-proof features on lids if possible.

  • Save and organize the information leaflets the pharmacy gives you with your prescriptions. These helpful references remind you when and how to take your medication, about any special storage directions, and what potential side effects you may experience.

Special handling of pain medication

People diagnosed with cancer often experience pain, either from the cancer itself or as a side effect of treatment. As a result, managing and treating pain is an important part of a person’s overall treatment plan. This may involve the use of pain-relief medications called analgesics. Some people with moderate to severe pain may use opioids, also known as narcotics.

Although these drugs effectively relieve cancer pain, opioids are dangerous if a family member or pet swallows them. Also, fentanyl skin patches (see below) can get stuck on the feet and skin of children and pets if not disposed of properly. And, people who abuse drugs may seek them out. Therefore, take additional steps to safely and securely store your opioid pain medication:

  • Always store pain medication in a bottle with a child-resistant lid.

  • Keep all of your opioid medication in one location where a pet, child, teenager, or stranger cannot easily see it or access it. Consider storing your pain medication in a secure lockbox that only you and your caregiver can access. Some people have safes to secure cash, documents, or firearms, and those can be used, as well.

  • If your doctor prescribes a fentanyl skin patch, make sure you keep even used patches away from others. After using a patch, fold it in half to seal the sticky parts and safely dispose of it (see below).

  • Only share details about your prescription(s) with your caregiver or others who need to know.

Special handling of oral chemotherapy

Many chemotherapy drugs are now taken by mouth as take-home prescriptions. Although this is more convenient, you must consider a number of important aspects:

  • Store all chemotherapy in its original container, in a safe place, and away from all other medications. Always keep medications out of the reach of children and/or pets.

  • Most oral chemotherapy should be stored at room temperature, away from heat, moisture, and direct sunlight. This means you should not place chemotherapy on a windowsill, near a sink, or in a bathroom.

  • Some types of chemotherapy require special storage or handling, such as refrigeration. Ask your doctor or pharmacist how to store your medication.

  • If you use a pill box or other type of medication organizer, keep one for chemotherapy and one for any other medication(s). Clearly label both boxes.

  • Keep the local poison control center’s telephone number handy in case a pet, child, or other member of your household accidentally swallows the medication. The national number, which will route you to the local center based on your area code, is 800-222-1222.

Disposing of medications

When you no longer need a medication, you should get rid of it as safely as possible. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist or read the informational guide that came with the prescription to learn how to safely dispose of each medication. Options may include:

  • Participating in a local drug take-back program. Prescription medication take-back programs allow people to bring any unused or expired drugs to a central location to properly dispose of them. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sponsors national prescription drug take-back days every six months, with collection sites around the country. Contact your local law enforcement office and your pharmacist about take-back programs in your community.

  • Flushing unused pain medication. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that some opioid medications be flushed down the toilet. But some communities have rules and restrictions against this. When in doubt, check with your local water treatment and/or sanitation department. Never flush oral chemotherapy (see below).

  • Throwing the medication away. If you can’t take your medication to a disposal location or flush it, you may need to put it in the trash (with the exception of oral chemotherapy; see below). Before doing so, follow these important steps:

    • Take all of the medication out of its container.

    • Put the medication in a sealable container, such as a plastic bag or coffee can.

    • Mix the medication with an undesirable substance such as cat litter or used coffee grounds. Do not crush pills, tablets, or capsules.

    • Seal the container and be sure to put it in the trash, not the recycling.

    • Remove the label or completely cross out any personal information before throwing out or recycling an empty container. This will help protect your identity.

  • Returning chemotherapy to your doctor. You should never throw out or flush leftover chemotherapy. Normally, you will not have extra oral chemotherapy because doctors typically prescribe it in the exact dosage and amount necessary. However, if you do, return it to your doctor or nurse for disposal. Also, ask a member of your health care team ahead of time if you should return the empty containers or any other chemotherapy waste to the doctor’s office or treatment center for safe disposal.

If you have additional questions about disposing of unused or expired medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist how to proceed. You can also call the FDA at 888-INFO-FDA (888-463-6332).

More Information

Drug Information Resources

The Importance of Taking Your Medication Correctly

ASCO Answers: Safe Storage and Disposal of Pain Medications (PDF)

Additional Resources

FDA: Medication Disposal: Questions and Answers

FDA: How to Dispose of Unused Medicines (PDF)