Those being treated for, or recovering from cancer may want or need to travel for a number of reasons such as to visit family or friends, go on vacation, or receive treatment. Whether you’re dealing with cancer yourself or providing care to someone who is, you’ll want your journey to be as safe and comfortable as possible, so careful planning is important. In this article we explore practical travel tips for cancer patients and caregivers.
As a guideline, it's best to talk with your doctor about travelling to determine if it's right for you. Where you are in your treatment journey is an important consideration. For example, if you've just started treatment, it may be best to stay close to home so you don't miss any appointments. If you've just finished chemotherapy, you may be at a greater risk of infection.
You'll want to be aware of a few travel risks so you can take appropriate measures to minimize them. Your doctor can discuss the following risks with you:
- Infection: Chemotherapy, for example, weakens the immune system1 because it destroys all the cells in your body, even healthy ones, as it works to eradicate cancer. A weakened immune system can make you more prone to sickness and infection commonly acquired through flying and other public transportation methods. If your doctor thinks this is too risky, they may advise you to put off traveling until you're healthier.
- Flying restrictions: High altitudes mean lower oxygen levels and air pressure fluctuations2 that can be dangerous to some cancer patients, especially if they've had recent surgery.
- Blood clots: Long periods of sitting, whether in a car or on a plane, can increase the risk of developing blood clots, which can lead to life-threatening events like a heart attack or stroke.3
- Low energy: Cancer treatments often cause extreme fatigue, so you may want to postpone your journey until you have enough energy to travel comfortably and make the most of your time away.
Generally, it's Ok for cancer patients to travel as long as they've received their doctor's permission and they understand the risks involved and how to mitigate them.
Travel Tips for Cancer Patients and Caregivers
Whether you're planning a break or to receive treatment, travel can provide a welcome distraction and lift your spirits. However, feeling apprehensive about going away when you have cancer is normal. The following tips can help you travel safely and comfortably.
If you have cancer, here are some tips for traveling:
- Check with your doctor first: As we mention above, discuss your travel plans with your doctor and get their approval. With knowledge of your circumstances and care plan, they can provide advice on safe travel They can also explain what to do if you feel ill while away.
- Choose a safe destination: Ensure your destination has medical facilities close by in case you need them. Also, notify the staff of your hotel, cruise line, or other lodging of any special requirements you may have so they can best accommodate you.
- Plan your airplane seat strategically: Book your plane tickets well in advance so you can choose a seat with extra legroom or next to the aisle to make bathroom trips easier. Pick a seat at the front of the plane so you can de-board first.
- Pack sun protection: Chemotherapy and radiation can make your skin extra sensitive to the sun.4 If you're traveling somewhere warm and sunny, be vigilant about skincare. Apply sunscreen of at least SPF 30 all over your body, and reapply it every two hours and after sweating or swimming. Pack a wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing to guard your skin from the sun further.
- Keep your medications with you: Remember to pack enough medication for the length of your trip, plus a few extra days in case you lose a pill or have travel delays. Keep your medications in your carry-on or personal item while flying so they're easily accessible and won't get lost or left behind.
- Pack copies of important medical documents: Recent medical records, a medication list, and a cancer diagnosis and treatment summary are all great documents to have should you need medical attention while away from your doctor. Let your travel partner know where these documents are in case they need to access them.
- Carry a doctor's note: Obtain a doctor's note explaining that your medications and supplies are necessary so that you don't have any problems taking them on a plane or in other public places. If you have implanted radiation seeds for treatment, get a verification card from your doctor to help you pass airport security.
- Protect your immune system: Boost your immune defenses by washing your hands frequently and using hand sanitizer. It's also a good idea to wear an N95 or comparable medical mask when in tight quarters with other travelers, such as on an airplane. These masks help protect you from airborne illnesses and viruses.5 Likewise, avoid raw meat or fish, uncooked vegetables, and dining at buffets to further minimize your infection risk.
- Stay hydrated: Be sure to drink plenty of water throughout your vacation days to stay hydrated. If you drink alcohol, consider doing so in moderation to help avoid dehydration.
- Be mindful of your energy: Take frequent breaks to prevent overexertion so fatigue doesn't get the best of you. If you're in the middle of treatment, consider saving a busy vacation for another time and opt for a more relaxing one instead, such as a beach or spa trip.
- Ask for assistance: Airport staff can help you manage your luggage, get to your gate, and get situated on the plane. Take advantage of their help if you need it — and save your energy for the real fun to come.
- Incorporate movement into your journey: If your travel plans have you sitting in a car or airplane for extended periods, stretch your legs and try easy exercises to keep your blood flowing and help prevent clots.
- Consider travel insurance: Cancer patients can qualify for travel insurance if they're medically stable and purchase it well in advance, among other factors. You can still buy a travel plan even if you're not medically stable. Consult with a travel insurance specialist to determine what you qualify for.
As a cancer patient's travel companion you have an opportunity to help make their journey safe, comfortable and memorable. The following tips can help you support your friend or family member on a vacation or medical trip:
- Accompany the patient when they visit their doctor to discuss safe travels: A second set of ears is always a good idea, and the doctor's advice can help you prepare to be a supportive travel partner.
- Help plan safe and accessible travel and activities: Be a proactive travel partner and do your research to make sure the places you'll be visiting are easily accessible and close to medical facilities if the need arises. The best vacations for cancer patients balance fun and stimulating activities with plenty of downtime for rest and relaxation. Fill the days with shorter activities that won't wear the cancer patient out, and follow them up with leisurely activities, such as a spa visit, beach time, or simply relaxing to watch a movie, nap, or read.
- Offer to do some of the packing: It's easy for a cancer patient to get overwhelmed when trying to remember and pack everything they may need while traveling, so offer to handle certain things, like healthy snacks, neck pillows, magazines, or anything else to make the journey easier. You can also help them make a list of packing essentials and help them pack to ensure they remember everything, particularly medication and any medical supplies that should accompany them.
- Offer to help them with their luggage: Any physical exertion you can take off your loved one's hands allows them to save their energy for the excitement waiting at your destination.
- Assist them with walking if needed: Stay by your friend or family member's side in case they need support while walking. Make sure you have access to a wheelchair if they want a comfortable break.
- Save time for long conversations: Traveling during chemotherapy can be exhilarating, overwhelming, and emotional all at once. Be ready to listen and speak candidly if your travel partner wants to discuss their feelings.
- Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands frequently and remove your shoes before entering your lodging to help your loved one minimize their risk of infection.
Try not to discuss their illness unless they bring it up: Traveling is an excellent time for creating happy memories and focusing on things beyond a cancer diagnosis. Avoid mentioning illnesses unless your loved one brings them up.
Cancer patients may need to travel for testing or treatment for several reasons. One reason is that they may need to access specialized treatment unavailable in their area. For example, some clinical trials are only held at specific medical centers, and patients may need to travel to participate. Additionally, some cancer treatments, such as proton therapy, are only available at a limited number of medical facilities.
Another reason for travel may be to receive a second opinion from a specialist in a particular type of cancer. Second opinions are a normal part of navigating a cancer diagnosis because the disease can be quite complex, and some types of cancer are rare. Many of the top cancer doctors and facilities are in big cities in part to make care available to the most cancer patients.
Finally, some patients may travel for cancer treatment to access more affordable care or avoid long wait times in their home country.
Regardless of your reason for medical travel, the following guidelines can help you get ready for your trip:
- Prepare for your time away: Ensuring you have everything you need can help you feel at ease while traveling. Start making a list well before your travel date so you have time to secure the necessities. Be sure to pack extra medication and any devices to help you get around, such as a walker or wheelchair. Have your doctor review your list and add anything they think would be helpful.
- Utilize your resources: Traveling for cancer treatment can be physically, emotionally, and financially overwhelming. However, there are resources to help you with costs, logistics, and emotional support. Start by asking your hospital or insurance provider to connect you with a nurse navigator or similar professional who can help you plan your trip and access financial and support resources.
- Finalize transportation methods: Determine when you'll need transportation and organize it before your trip. If you're flying, you'll need to catch a bus or cab to your lodging once you land. You'll also need transportation to and from the treatment facility and back to the airport. Your treatment facility and hotel may offer transportation — call them and ask what's available. If you're driving, make sure your car has been serviced recently, including an oil change and tire rotation, so there's little chance of car trouble along the way.
- Have a backup plan: It's a good idea to plan for potential obstacles, such as heavy traffic, a delayed flight, or a medical emergency. If you're traveling by car, plan your route ahead of time, determining where you'll stop for fuel, bathroom breaks, and meals. Compile a list of specialists located along your route so you have medical support if you get delayed for an extended period.
- Research the location: Research the area beforehand so you know where to find supermarkets, drug stores, restaurants, and other necessities. Check out local movie theaters, libraries, museums, and shopping in case you feel up to some recreation during your trip.
While traveling with cancer may require some extra planning, it can still be a safe and enjoyable experience. The travel tips for cancer patients and caregivers above will help ensure your trip is as safe and comfortable as possible.
Remember to consult with your health care provider before traveling, pack all necessary medications and medical equipment, choose a destination with good medical facilities, take frequent breaks, and consider purchasing travel insurance.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself and take the time you need to rest and recover. With these tips in mind, you can still enjoy the benefits of travel while undergoing cancer treatment.
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- Information for Patients and Caregivers. Published 2019. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/preventinfections/patients.htm
- Stoller JK. Patient education: Supplemental oxygen on commercial airlines (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. Published November 15, 2021. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/supplemental-oxygen-on-commercial-airlines-beyond-the-basics
- Blood Clots. Medlineplus.gov. Published 2019. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://medlineplus.gov/bloodclots.html
- Skin and Nail Changes and Cancer Treatment - Side Effects. National Cancer Institute. Published June 14, 2019. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/skin-nail-changes
- Health C for D and R. N95 Respirators, Surgical Masks, Face Masks, and Barrier Face Coverings. FDA. Published online September 15, 2021. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/personal-protective-equipment-infection-control/n95-respirators-surgical-masks-face-masks-and-barrier-face-coverings#s3