While vacations are meant to be relaxing, more often than not, traveling is a stressful experience. Even before you leave home, your mind is bombarded with questions and worries: What do I need to pack? Who will take care of the kids/pets/plants/etc? How early do I need to get to the airport? What can I take through security? Then it’s standing in potentially long lines and wondering why your flight has been delayed. But in addition to the usual travel headaches, there are some important things related to your health that you also need to consider.
The key to taking a trip when you or your travel companion has cancer is to think ahead and prepare for any special needs. This means talking with your doctor about your medical condition(s) to know whether it is ok for you to travel, including whether it’s safe for you to fly.
Up in the air
Some people with cancer may not be able to fly because oxygen levels and air pressure changes at high altitudes can be dangerous. For example, if you are at risk for increased swelling in the brain because of a brain tumor, are severely anemic, or have low levels of oxygen in your blood because of a lung tumor, your doctor may advise you not to fly. Changes in air pressure during a flight can also trigger swelling called lymphedema in the arms, legs, or other parts of the body for people who have had lymph nodes removed. To help reduce the chance of swelling, your doctor might recommend wearing a compression garment while traveling and/or to avoid tight-fitting clothing. It is also important to gently exercise your arms and legs and move around as much as possible during the journey.
Sitting through a long flight is already a risk factor for developing a blood clot, also called a thrombosis, and people with cancer, especially those who have recently had surgery or are receiving chemotherapy, have an even higher risk. Because blood clots are potentially life-threatening, you may not be able to take a trip that requires sitting for a long time. To reduce the risk of developing blood clots during long trips, get up and walk around at least once every hour to increase your circulation. Also ask the doctor if you should take aspirin or other medications before the trip. If you are interested in learning more, read the American Society of Clinical Oncology's (ASCO's) recommendations on preventing and treating blood clots.
You may also want to ask your doctor to write a summary of your medical/drug instructions, allergies, and diagnosis and treatment plan. Keep this summary and other emergency information, like emergency contact phone numbers, on hand throughout your trip. If you are traveling internationally, you might want to consider translating this information into the local language. Also ask the doctor to give you a medication schedule if you need to take a drug at a specific time and are traveling across time zones.
Because you can never be quite sure where your luggage will end up (my suitcase once went on a bus tour of Chile…without me), be sure to pack all of your prescription medications in your carry-on instead of a checked bag. If possible, bring an extra supply of your medications in case your return trip is delayed. It is also important to keep your medications in their original containers to avoid drug mix-ups and to show customs officials. If you have syringes and needles for injections, ask your doctor to write a note explaining why it is medically necessary to carry these supplies.
Although traveling can be physically and mentally exhausting, sometimes getting away from it all is just what you need. And with a bit of planning, you can relax and enjoy your trip.
Editor's Note: Traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic
It’s best to limit non-essential travel during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the risk of exposure to the virus. However, if you plan to travel for any reason, including car trips or by airplane, it is important to do your best to keep a distance from other people when in public settings. Maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet apart, also called social distancing, is recommended. You should wear a mask at all times, except for brief periods of time while eating or drinking. Carry hand sanitizer with you on your trip, and be sure to have it available at all times. Also, use hand sanitizer or wash your hands well after touching any surface not in your home if you haven’t seen it being cleaned. Be careful not to touch your face, your phone, or other personal items before you have a chance to clean your hands.
Because dining in an enclosed restaurant increases your risk of exposure to COVID-19, try to eat at restaurants with outdoor dining and good ventilation when traveling. Ask the waitstaff to show you the menu or pull it up on your smartphone rather than touching a menu that you can’t be sure has been cleaned well. While on a road trip or when traveling by air, pack your own snacks or meals to reduce the need to stop in a store or restaurant to purchase food. Wear a mask in all public places, including restrooms.
Most importantly, do not travel if you are sick, if someone traveling with you is sick, or if you have been around someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days. Learn more about what people with cancer and survivors should know during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This post was reviewed by a member of the Cancer.Net Editorial Board.
Revised October 30, 2020.