How to Prepare When You Have to Travel for Cancer Treatment

June 16, 2020
Lindsay Pickell, ASCO staff

For many people with cancer, traveling a long distance to receive treatment is a necessity. Health care providers may be spread across multiple hospitals and offices, and the specialists you need may be hours away from home. Or, maybe you live in an area, such as a rural location, that has fewer medical facilities and services. Or, the clinical trial you’re in may mean you have to travel to receive the treatment.

Traveling for cancer treatment can be overwhelming during an already difficult time, regardless of whether it’s a drive across the state or a flight across the country. However, there are some things you can do to make traveling for treatment easier on your mind and body. Remember, you should always talk to your doctor about your upcoming travel and ask if there are any specific instructions based on your care, including precautions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

1: Take advantage of resources

If you must travel to receive cancer treatment, know that you have options to help with logistics, cost, and emotional support. The cost of travel may be high, especially if you must travel a long distance and be away from home for a long time. If you need to travel for treatment, the first step is to ask your hospital or insurance company if you have access to a nurse navigator or other staff who can help you plan your travel and provide information on financial and support resources.

Ahead of your treatment, research where you’ll stay and how to get there. Talk with the medical center where you’re headed about possible travel support and local housing options, such as nearby hotels that may provide free or lower-cost lodging for patients. There may be local patient advocacy organizations who can provide support groups, meals, and financial support while you’re away. Learn more about some national programs on this resources page (under “Housing assistance”).  If you’re traveling for treatment as part of a clinical trial, you may also be able to get support with travel, meals, and lodging through a National Institutes of Health program like Friends of the Clinical Center.

2: Plan your route

Before you leave, know your route ahead of time, monitor weather conditions along the way and in your destination city, and have a backup plan in case there’s a problem, such as heavy traffic, a missed bus stop, or a delayed flight.

If you’re traveling by car, bus, or train for a long distance, bring along a list of specialists on your route so you can easily reach out if needed to find out if they can help you if you end up being delayed for any significant period of time. If you’re driving, plan ahead where you can stop for bathroom breaks, fuel, and meals.

For air travel, if you don’t have a direct flight, know where the nearest medical facilities are in your layover city, including cancer centers and other medical services. And, always be prepared for delays, canceled flights, or getting stuck overnight in a different city, such as by keeping essential medications and medical equipment with you.

You should also inform your treatment destination, your doctor’s office, and your loved ones of your specific travel plans. Be sure to share your itinerary and contact information with your emergency contact before you leave home. If you need help with travel costs, learn more about available programs on this resources page (under “Travel assistance”).

Don’t forget to research the city where you’ll be staying to see where you can eat, shop for groceries or necessities, or even do some local sightseeing when you feel up to it. You should also check what restrictions may be in place in your destination city due to COVID-19.

3: Pack smart and prioritize comfort

Travel under normal circumstances can often be uncomfortable, both physically and mentally, and traveling for cancer treatment can make these issues even more noticeable. If you will be away from home for a long time, research your planned lodging services to see what amenities they provide (kitchenette, laundry facility, etc.) so you can properly pack for your journey.

Whether your travel is by air, car, or public transportation, try to prioritize your comfort. Here are some things to keep in mind when packing:

  • Bring entertainment, such as a book or tablet.

  • Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing.

  • Listen to calming music or try a meditation app.

  • Bring a favorite snack or drink.

  • Pack medications and medical equipment in a separate, waterproof bag, such as in a resealable plastic bag. And, pack this bag in your carry-on bag so it is easy to reach at all times. Be sure to keep all medications in their original containers.

  • Keep a list of all medications you take and keep dosage amounts handy.

For airline and public transportation, always bring a doctor’s note with you explaining your condition and medications. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) may stop you if your medication and medical devices are prohibited, so check the current regulations. Airlines or other transportation carriers may refuse letting you board if you look ill without explanation.

Avoid alcohol or other drugs (unless prescribed by your doctor), and drink plenty of water. Take the rest
breaks you need.

Ask your doctor about when you should wear personal protective equipment, such as a mask and disposable gloves, during your journey. This may be the same or different than the current guidance for the general public in different areas due to COVID-19. You should also find out the COVID-19 policies in place at your destination center, which may require certain personal protective equipment or limit who can accompany the patient inside the center.

4: Prepare for emergencies

Unexpected emergencies, such as floods, fires, hurricanes, snowstorms, and, more recently, public health pandemics, create challenges for everyone, especially travelers. Take some time to think through how you can prepare as much as possible to avoid having an emergency affect your cancer care. A good first step is to keep your important information close by. Download a free printable Emergency Checklist (PDF) to use and an Emergency Information Wallet Card (PDF) to keep with you during your travels.

For information about cancer care during the COVID-19 pandemic, refer to these Cancer.Net blog posts.

5: Preparation is key

Taking steps to avoid or reduce potential problems is good practice in any situation, and traveling for cancer treatment is no different. Having extra medication and supplies, wearing comfortable clothes, keeping your phone charged, and allowing yourself the indulgence of a good book or music as you travel can reduce your stress level and bring peace of mind. Although it may seem like overkill to map out a route in advance and mark the location of services and facilities that you may need to be aware of in an emergency, this small bit of planning could be the difference between a minor inconvenience and a major problem. And remember, always be sure to talk with your health care provider about your specific needs before traveling for treatment.

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