Traveling is the one thing on most people’s bucket lists, and when someone is told they have cancer, they may want to squeeze in one good trip before their treatment starts – depending on their diagnosis and whether their particular treatment plan allows for the delay. In other cases, the effects of the cancer treatment are not so severe as to stop a traveler from taking a trip.
You can get more advice, information, and tips for coping with and surviving cancer at Cancer.net, the oncologist-approved cancer information website from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
What are the risks of traveling with cancer?
Some of the most important risks that those with cancer face when traveling include the following:
Risk of infection – if you are receiving chemotherapy, there is a significantly higher risk of infection. For some people, the risk of infection is so high that their doctor will recommend avoiding travel while receiving chemotherapy.
Restrictions on flying – some people with cancer may not be permitted to fly because the oxygen levels and changes in air pressure at high altitudes can be dangerous. Also, air travel is not recommended for 10 days after surgery for the same reasons, along with the risk of lymphedema, or swelling in the extremities for those who have had lymph nodes removed.
Risk of blood clots – particularly for a person with cancer, the risk of blood clots, also called thrombosis, is potentially life-threatening. A person with cancer may not be able to take an extended trip because they shouldn’t be sitting still for long periods of time.
Low energy – in many cases, cancer treatments cause fatigue, sometimes severe fatigue, after treatment and this may limit the traveler’s ability to travel. Often people want to celebrate the end of their treatment, but patients are usually warned to delay it until their energy levels return so they can enjoy their trip.
One of the risks that is not often talked about is the resistance you may face with family and friends when you decide to take a trip after your diagnosis. We can’t tell you how to handle this particular risk, but hopefully following the tips outlined here will put you in a better position to ease their minds.
1. Check with your Doctor First
As you might expect, it’s critical for a cancer patient who wants to travel to check with their doctor first for several reasons:
You want to be sure it’s safe for you to travel
You want to know what precautions to take while you are traveling
You want to know what to do if you feel ill while on your trip
You want to know if there are any necessary vaccinations prior to your trip
You want to cover your trip with travel insurance
Ideally, working closely with your doctor you can determine whether the trip you want to take can be successfully accomplished now or if it should wait until your treatment is completed and you’ve fully recovered.
2. Research your Destination
Cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and steroid therapy sometimes weaken the immune system and limits the effectiveness of vaccinations received while the cancer patient is receiving treatment and for some time after. In some cases, people with weakened immune systems are advised against receiving vaccines.
Travel to some parts of the world requires vaccinations for diseases that are prevalent in particular regions. For example, when traveling to Brazil, Peru, or Venezuela (among others) the yellow fever vaccination is recommended. You’ll need to research whether vaccinations are required for your travel destination and speak with your doctor about whether your body can handle those vaccinations. If the vaccination for a particular region is not required – only recommended – you’ll want to know what precautions you should take to avoid getting sick while on your trip.
3. Be Extra Careful Protecting your Skin
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy make a cancer patient’s skin sensitive to sun damage. This effect may be temporary or it could be permanent, so it’s important for cancer patients and survivors to take very careful care of their skin and avoid exposure to the sun. This means:
Wearing strong (at least 30 SPF) sunscreen over your entire body
Re-applying sunscreen every couple of hours or immediately after swimming
Wearing a hat while outside
Wearing light protective clothing to guard your skin from the sun
Remember that sun exposure doesn’t only come from above. When you are on reflective snow or water, your exposure can come from below and from all sides, so protect your skin from all sides.
4. Take Special Care of Medications
All prescription medications should be treated very carefully, which means keeping them with you in your carry-on, having enough to cover your trip (and a few extra days), and carrying a doctor’s note to explain the medical necessity of any special supplies like syringes, injection needles, and the like.
In addition, you’ll want to carry a copy of your prescriptions and your doctor’s contact information with you in case your medications are lost or stolen.
5. Take Precautions with your Health
General health precautions cancer patients – indeed anyone with a compromised immune system – should take while traveling include the following:
To reduce the risk of blood clots, get up and move about every hour or so. See our tips on avoiding deep vein thrombosis.
Stay hydrated by carrying your own water bottle and drinking fresh, clean water regularly. See our safe drinking water tips for travelers.
Avoid germs and viruses by practicing good hand-washing techniques and making good food choices. See our tips on avoiding germs on vacation.
- Get plenty of rest while you’re traveling to keep up your strength and recovery. See our top reasons to get plenty of sleep when you travel.
6. Get Travel Insurance
Many people traveling with cancer believe they cannot get travel insurance. After all, they clearly have a pre-existing medical condition and travel insurance plans specifically exclude pre-existing medical conditions, right?
Well, yes and no. Travelers with pre-existing conditions can get coverage for their trips, including the right to cancel their trip, to interrupt their trip and the ability to seek medical attention where they travel depending on a few factors:
The traveler must be medically stable and able to travel when they buy their travel insurance and during the look-back period
The traveler must purchase their travel insurance early – soon after their first trip payment is made
The traveler must cover all their pre-paid and non-refundable trip payments in order to have coverage for cancellations
A traveler with cancer may want to get a signed and dated doctor’s note indicating that you are medically stable and able to travel. See our review of pre-existing coverage to understand the terms ‘medically stable’ and ‘look-back period’.
Even if you don’t qualify as medically stable, you should consider buying a travel insurance plan anyway. After all, if you slip and break your leg getting out of a boat in Ecuador, your medical care for that situation will be covered by your travel medical coverage because it is unrelated to your medical condition.
In addition, there are many travel insurance coverages that are not affected by the pre-existing condition exclusion – and each of these may be useful to you on your trip irrespective of your condition:
If you are not medically stable and still want to travel, your best bet is to rely on your research of the destination and your doctor’s advice to stay as safe and comfortable as possible on your trip.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them here.