Traveling With Cancer
People who are actively undergoing cancer therapies or whose immune systems or overall health has been compromised by cancer treatments may choose to travel for a variety of reasons: business, vacation, even treatment. The key to traveling with cancer is to make travel preparations that will promote comfort, safeguard your health, and maintain your treatment goals as much as possible. Here are some tips to help make your trip smoother.
Before You Travel
Check With Your Doctor
Before you travel, be sure to discuss your plans with your doctor. This is especially important if you have recently been diagnosed with cancer or are still suffering side effects of treatment or chemotherapy. Your doctor’s opinion on when and whether you should travel is very important. If your doctor recommends against travel be sure you understand the reasons for that recommendation.
Choosing Your Destination
Vacationers should carefully consider potential health hazards when choosing a destination.
- If you are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, avoid sun-intensive locations, as certain treatments can make the skin highly sensitive to sunlight. Check with your doctor about precautions you should take when exposed to the sun.
- If your treatment has resulted in severe anemia, check with your doctor before flying or visiting high-altitude locations.
Research Important Numbers
If you are traveling abroad, bring the emergency numbers for each city you will be visiting, as well as the number for the American consulate and embassy.
Check vaccination requirements; some vaccines needed for entry into certain countries may be contraindicated for cancer patients. People with cancer who are receiving immunosuppressive therapies (chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or large volume radiotherapy) should not receive live vaccines, and inactivated vaccines may produce a weaker response, thus diminishing effectiveness.
“The effectiveness of a vaccine is determined by the stage and type of cancer,” says Gianna Zuccotti, MD, MPH, Medical Director of the Travel and Infectious Disease Clinic at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “Patients who are in the early stages of cancer, with solid tumors, (such as breast and colon cancers) will have a better response to immunizations.”
Before your trip, contact your oncologist to obtain the following:
- A letter from your doctor on hospital stationary describing your diagnosis and treatment plan
- A recent prescription signed by your doctor in case you need a refill. (This may be a problem if you are traveling to a place where your physician is not licensed to prescribe medications. Therefore, also bring a letter from your doctor or ask your doctor if he or she has any contacts in the city where you will be traveling.)
- Copies of your most recent blood tests and lab test results
- A medical bracelet (if desired)
- Contact information of your doctor (name, address, emergency number, and office phone and fax number), as well as an emergency family contact
The following preparations will help you, as well as medical and airline personnel:
- Keep your medication in the original prescription bottles, which includes the prescription date, pharmacy, and physician name.
- Bring an ample supply of your primary medication, as well as any necessary medications to combat side effects.
- Before traveling, discuss with your doctor whether you need to take long-term antibiotic therapy to protect you from bacterial infection, such as diarrhea, which can seriously affect your health.
- Keep a list of all your medications, including dosages and dosing schedules, and any drug allergies. If you are traveling with a companion, provide them with a copy.
- Before you leave, check with your health insurance company to determine whether your plan will cover health costs incurred while traveling. If not, you should purchase travel health insurance.
- You may also want to consider purchasing emergency medical evacuation insurance. If you have a medical emergency, the costs of obtaining an emergency flight or ambulance may be expensive, and services may need to be paid in cash.
In the Air
A risk for all airline travelers on long flights is developing deep-vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT is a blood clot that forms in the deep veins of the lower body, primarily the legs. The clot can migrate to the heart, lungs, and brain causing potential catastrophic complications, including death or stroke.
Cancer patients are susceptible to blood clots, so walking around once every hour to increase circulation is encouraged. Some doctors may recommend taking aspirin to thin the blood, or even a prophylactic dose of heparin in certain cases. Ask your doctor whether these options are right for you.
On the Ground
When you arrive at your destination, take these precautions to optimize your stay:
- Food and Water
- Avoid infections, which put stress on your immune system. Drink only bottled water, and eat only hot, well-cooked foods prepared in clean, sanitary facilities. You may want to consider bringing along meal-replacement drinks or snacks as back up.
- Patients with lymphoma are at a higher risk for developing listeriosis, an illness caused by food contaminated with listeria bacteria. Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, as well as deli meats.
- Know and respect your body’s limits. Your treatment may make you tired, weak, or nauseous, so don’t overschedule your day.
When You’re Traveling for Treatment
Sometimes travel is not due to vacation or business—it’s simply a necessity to obtain treatment. If treatment is distant and costly for you, there are organizations that provide help when traveling for appointments, often for free. Some examples include:
- Corporate Angel Network: This organization provides free airline transportation on unused corporate seats to ambulatory patients, bone marrow donors, and recipients.
- American Cancer Society (ACS): In agreement with Westin Hotels, the ACS may arrange for hotel rooms to cancer patients and family members who are traveling for treatment if space is available. For further information, contact your local division of ACS and ask for the Westin Hotels Guest Room Program.
International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Traveler’s Health, National Center for Infectious Disease
WorldClinic at Lahey Clinic
Avery RK. Immunization in adult immunocompromised patients: which to use, and which to avoid. Cleve Clin J Med. 2001;68:337-348.
Hunter-Jones P. Managing cancer: the role of holiday taking. J Travel Med. 2003;10:170.
Traveling with cancer. MD Anderson Cancer Center website. Available at: http://www.mdandersonorlando.org/about/news. Accessed October 13, 2003.
Wilensky A. Traveling with cancer. Cancer and Careers.org website. Available at: http://www.cancerandcareers.org/working/item?item_id=5047. Accessed October 13, 2003
Last reviewed July 2007 by Mohei Abouzied, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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