Safe Storage and Disposal of Cancer Medications

Approved by the Lineagotica Editorial Board, 11/2017
This graphic visually depicts the methods available to consumers to dispose of their unused, unwanted or expired medications. The methods, in order of preference, include readily available drug take-bake programs, disposal in the household trash and, for a few potentially dangerous medications, disposal by flushing in the toilet.

View a full-sized version of this infographic
at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website.

Listen to the Lineagotica Podcast: How to Safely Handle and Dispose Medication.

During and after cancer treatment, people may have 1 or more medications to take at home. These powerful medications can be very harmful if someone other than the person with cancer takes them. Therefore, you and your caregivers need to know the safest ways to store and dispose of specific medications.

General storage 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.

  • Your prescriptions should be out of the sight and reach of children and/or pets. Consider using child-proof features on lids if possible.

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

  • Store your medications 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.

  • Save and organize the information leaflets the pharmacy gives you with your prescriptions. These documents 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. 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 1 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 caregivers 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 that 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). These patches can get stuck on the feet and skin of children and pets if not disposed of properly. Opioid medication from the patches can be absorbed even after the patches have already been used.

  • 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 1 for chemotherapy and 1 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.

General disposal tips

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 (DEA) sponsors national prescription drug take-back days every 6 months, with collection sites around the country. Contact your local law enforcement office and your pharmacist about take-back programs in your community.

  • Throwing the medication away. If you cannot take your medication to a disposal location or flush it, you may need to put it in the trash. Do not throw away oral chemotherapy (see below). Before throwing away medication, 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.

Disposing unused pain medication

It is illegal for your health care team to personally accept returned opioid pain medication. Many law enforcement agencies, such as police and sheriff’s departments maintain drop boxes for disposal of unused pain medicines in their stations. Some pharmacy chains also provide this service in their stores. Medicines returned to these locations are collected and destroyed in a safe manner. The DEA maintains a website where you can search for the nearest public disposal location.

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.

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. But 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).

Related Resources

More Information

ASCO answers; Safe Storage and Disposal of Pain MedicationsDownload ASCO's free Safe Storage and Disposal of Pain Medications fact sheet. This 1-page printable PDF gives an introduction to safety and handling of pain medications, including suggestions for storing and disposing of these medications, terms to know, and questions to ask the doctor. Order printed copies of this fact sheet from the ASCO University Bookstore.