Vacation and Travel With Breast Cancer

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • I just returned from two weeks away from home.  I planned to leave cancer behind for two weeks as well, but it didn't work out quite the way I hoped.


    I've been an active participant in an on-line inflammatory breast cancer support group for  12 years, and I've been writing about breast cancer at HealthCentral for three years.  In the average week, I probably spend about seven to ten hours thinking and writing about cancer.  Even when I've been on vacation, I've usually tried to do a quick check-in when I've had computer access to answer questions. 


    For this trip I planned to take a "cancer vacation."  I was traveling overseas with a group and didn't know how often I would be able to check a computer, but even more importantly, I thought it was important to put cancer out of my mind for a while.

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    In some ways my vacation worked well.  I read no news articles about cancer, watched no programs about cancer, and opened no emails from cancer websites.  My high school French is still good enough to ask directions or order a cup of coffee, but it isn't up to newspapers or television.  Like many vacationers, I was also cut off from news about oil spills or local politics.  For two weeks, I enjoyed bonding with the group members, soaking in beautiful paintings, marveling at ancient buildings, and watching different cultures in action.


    However, I also learned that cancer is not the kind of friend you can leave at home.  It started at the airport where I bandaged my arm to prevent swelling from the change in cabin pressure on flights.  About half of the group didn't know about my cancer history.  When they saw my right arm wrapped to Michelin man size, they expressed their concern, and I found myself discussing lymph nodes and lymphedema.


    I've learned that wrapping after security checks helps to avoid "random screening," but my transatlantic flights required going through security gates more than once.  Twice the group was held up while my arm went through extra checks to be sure that those bandages didn't hide any dangerous items.  I understand the need to check, and the first group of security people were very nice about it.  But no one likes to be  suspected of criminal intent, especially if the security officials are curt.


    When I'm at home, I rarely give my neuropathy a second thought.  I'm used to the steps  and walking surfaces in my daily life.  Going up and down stairs in the Paris metro and ancient buildings required holding on to a handrail.  Some of the places we visited had no handrails, so I needed to ask someone to let me take an elbow to maintain my balance.  Once again I felt the need to explain why I'm so clumsy and tentative on uneven surfaces.


    Cancer's presence on my vacation wasn't all bad.  Walking over a bridge built in Roman times reminded me that my life is small in the long span of human history.  Everyday awe that I have survived to take this adventure overwhelmed me.  I strolled through spectacular gardens, climbed the stairs of  kings, and crossed the Mediterranean from Spain to Africa.  Twelve years ago this week, when I received the news that 16 of my 24 lymph nodes were cancerous, I couldn't have imagined myself on this trip.


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    Getting away for a while has refreshed and energized me.  I highly recommend it.  If you are currently in treatment, a "cancer vacation" may seem impossible.  But maybe you can arrange a day at the lake or the ocean.  Even if the cancer bills are piling up, laughing with your children at the local amusement park will be worth cutting back somewhere else.  I promise you those bills aren't going anywhere, but time with children is fragile, even for healthy people.  If the budget goes beyond tight, think about free gardens and museums in your city. 


    This summer take some time to relax and have fun!  Even if cancer tags along, leave as many worries as possible behind.  Time doing what you love will give you the strength to get back to the business of getting well.



Published On: June 30, 2010