Have Cancer, Will Travel
Few people have the luxury, or unfortunate circumstance depending on how you look at things, to see what is really important in life with the clarity a terminal diagnosis affords you. After receiving my stage IV diagnosis almost five years ago, I began to see what was truly important in life and just how fleetingly precious time is. Time, that was previously wasted on trivial things, undeserving people, and the flawed pursuit for what I thought I wanted in my life. All that changed the day I was told that my life would be drastically cut short by metastatic breast cancer.
I am lucky
I am one of the lucky ones, funny as that seems. I found out I was metastatic while still being physically able to live my life relatively unchanged. Sure I have doctor appointments and treatment, but I also have the energy to work full time (most days), chase after my young child, and do the things I love most to do. One of those things is travel.
As a child, I always dreamed of seeing the world outside of my small-ish rural town in central California. Growing up surrounded by cows and orange trees left me with a wanderlust that is still unsated. I long for architecture, artwork, and history. New and exotic cultural experiences are my craving. There is nothing more interesting to me than to take a walk in a foreign city, getting lost in the culture and the surprise of places I’ve only read about. I realized after my diagnosis that it had been years since my last trip and I vowed to make a change. From that point on, I would spend my time making myself, and my son, happy and fulfilled. I wouldn’t be lost in the necessity of the mundane, but would actively seek out the things that feed my soul. Travel, being one of them, would be a priority and I would commit myself to go at least one place each year that I had never been before and always wanted to see. Not a bucket list exactly, but more of an experience list.
So far, I have stuck to, if not exceeded, this goal. In the past four years, while living with a terminal disease, I have managed to visit, at least eight places that I’ve always dreamed of going. Places that had I not felt a ticking clock hovering over my head, I may never have gotten around to visiting. Not too bad…
Travel tips for advanced breast cancer
How does one manage to travel with metastatic breast cancer? It is not always easy and certainly has its limitations. After a few years of experience, here is some advice I have for the metastatic traveler:
- Always keep your oncologist informed of your travel plans – You may think you feel fine and up to travel, but your doctors may feel differently especially depending on the location. I’ve found it’s always a good idea to keep your doctor in the know and follow any advice or guidelines they encourage to ensure you are able to have the best time possible. No one wants to end up with the airplane flu on vacation!
- Be aware of and plan around your treatment schedule – For instance, I know that for about ten days after my chemo I won’t feel like doing a lot of walking around or eating yummy food. I always plan to go when I know I’ll be feeling the best I possibly can. If you don’t have a choice on the timeline, then make your doctor aware in case there is any flexibility in your treatment schedule.
- Give yourself plenty of time in your itinerary for rest breaks – Let’s face it, we get tired. Not just travel weary, but fatigue from medications and just having cancer. I have metastatic lesions to my bones and lungs so I am very careful in terms of planning my transportation and rest breaks. I can’t stay in a hotel that requires me to walk up three flights of stairs. I also happen to be very fond of naps now and make sure that I leave ample time for relaxation and recharging.
- Keep all of your medications with you – If you are anything like me, you likely have a full bag of pill bottles that need to accompany you anywhere an overnight stay is involved. Whatever you do, do not check your medications. Keep them in your carry-on baggage. Because of the volume of pills that most cancer patients take, I have found that by putting the majority of my daily pills into a weekly pillbox allows me to carry them all with me while using the least amount of space. The only exception to that would be any pain medication, specifically your Norco, Vicodin, OxyContin, etc. that are considered to be controlled substances. Always keep those in the prescription bottle with your name and information clearly stated.
- Don’t try to keep up with your “healthy” friends – The best people to travel with are those that are aware of and empathetic to your situation. As stated before, sometimes rest is needed and there is nothing worse than being on a trip with someone who minimizes your needs.
- Enjoy yourself! – If you are traveling, it is likely because it is somewhere you want to go, not have to. Traveling is all about the experience so make sure you are getting out of it what you are wanting. It is okay to put yourself first and it is not a selfish act. I often think to myself, if this is my last trip, is this how I want to be spending it?
- Comfortable shoes – And comfortable underwear. Because neither is fun when it isn’t.
- Lots of water – And then another glass on top of that to be safe. Try to make good food choices while traveling as well. Medications tend to make us feel uneasy at times so adding a lot of unhealthy food can make that worse.
- Don’t worry about what you look like – Whether it is wearing a safety mask* on the plane or covering your bald head with a hat, don’t let that stop you from getting the most out of your experience. Just slap some sunblock on that shiny noggin’ and get out there! *Side note: I’d love to tell you that I always wear those safety masks on the plane and I probably should, but that would be a lie. I don’t and unless someone is coughing ON me, I probably won’t. I can’t breathe in them and they annoy me. This is a good conversation to have with your doctor, however.
Making the most of my time
We all have a clock ticking away the time of our lives, some of us are just more aware of that than most. Be conscious of how you spend that time, where you spend it, and with whom. It may sound morbid, but I repeatedly remind myself that if I am not going to be thinking about it on my death bed, then it probably isn’t worth my time now. Find those things that feed your soul and nourish them. Think of a place you have always wanted to go and make it happen. With a terminal diagnosis comes complete awareness of just how little in life we have control over. This is one area where you do have some say, so make sure you are listening to that voice in your head when it is saying something. I look at travel as a way to be true to myself. Be true to you.
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