By Elizabeth De Jong, lung cancer survivor
My parents had an (at the time) unconventional commuting marriage for most of my childhood. Weekends were spent in cars visiting the parent that wasn’t living with us at the moment. These trips sparked a wanderlust in me at a young age. My husband and I collect experiences the way that others collect antiques or action figures. So, when I was diagnosed with lung cancer in September of 2016, our goal was to get my health back to a place where we could enjoy more travels and adventures. Since then, through careful planning, deal searching and use of airline miles and hotel nights, we have been to Madrid, Helsinki, Switzerland (including Jungfraujoch – or “the top of Europe”), Montreal, New York, Rome, and, most recently, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia.
I’ve had a number of people ask me how I do it – travel with lung cancer. First, I fully acknowledge and am grateful that my treatment for ALK+ non-small cell lung cancer is going really well. As of my last set of scans, I was NED (no evidence of disease). Second, there is no magic formula to traveling, for anyone, with or without cancer. Some people love it, some hate it and others tolerate it as a necessary evil. Through my travels, I’ve found some tips that help me and may help you too!
- Think about your energy level. If you are struggling with fatigue or exhaustion, now might not be the time to plan the hiking trip up Machu Picchu.
- Take your current health into account. Know where your blood counts are and be aware of what issues you might be facing physically. For me, that meant that going to Madrid, with its afternoon siestas, slower pace and relatively even terrain, made sense while I was still on a cane and my energy levels were low.
- Get your doctor’s approval. They can help you understand if travel is a good option right now. My oncology team has been great with letting me know if they think I’m ready to travel. They are also strong proponents of collecting more memories and experiences while I can.
- Know, and plan for, any special needs you might Do you need help to pre-board for a flight? Will you need help getting from one gate to another for airport connections? Do you need special storage or temperature control for medications? Do you need an accessible hotel room? If you are flying, what is the policy related to your medication? Liquid medications, syringes and oxygen all have differing policies depending on the airline and destination.
- Research your destination. Do you need additional vaccinations? Is your treatment an approved treatment in your destination country? If it is not, can you bring it in with supporting medical documents? Do you need to bring your medical records with you? How is the country’s healthcare?
- Get trip insurance. Not just ticket insurance, but actual trip insurance that can assist you should you have a medical crisis in another city, state or country.
During the Trip
- ALWAYS carry your medications. Never put them in your checked bags. Be sure to carry them in the prescription bottle to answer any questions of what the medication is and/or what it treats.
- Wash your hands constantly! The main way to decrease your odds of catching something is by washing your hands and keeping them away from your face.
- Disinfect! Wipe down your airline seat, seatbelt, tray table, armrests and anything else you might touch. Do the same for your rental car or train accommodations and your hotel room – TV remotes can be really gross! I do this on EVERY flight and have stopped caring what people think.
- Drink plenty of water. Hydration is important, but so is knowing that the water you are drinking is clean and safe – buy bottled water if you have any doubts. Now is not the time for intestinal issues.
- Get plenty of rest. This goes for before, during and after your trip. You may be inclined to go-go-go because you don’t want to miss out on anything, but pace yourself. Think of your activities in categories: what you NEED to do, what you really want to do, what you’d like to do if you have time and what is optional.
- Seek medical attention. If you are not feeling well, call your oncologist or get to a hospital or clinic. You would do it at home so don’t hesitate to do the same while traveling.
- Take lots of pictures! Embrace this time with your loved ones. Make memories that will last not only your lifetime, but theirs.
Happy travels from my husband and me!