Traveling has always been one of my favorite things in life and I have been fortunate enough that my health has stood up enough that I can still travel without accommodation. I have had to limit myself in small ways though. I’ve taken three international trips since my cancer diagnosis and two of them have been while on active treatment for metastatic disease. This is what has changed since I’ve become an MBC world traveler.
1) After finishing Peace Corps, I took six months off to travel. I had no obligations or reasons to go home besides my dwindling bank account. I thought “I probably won’t get such an opportunity to travel so long ever again.” I turned out to be right. After finishing treatment for Stage III breast cancer, I decided to take a decent chunk of time off for our Germany family reunion and visit to Morocco before going back to work and real life. Again, I figured “I might never get this chance again” – and again, I was right.
During my Lisbon/Poland trip last fall and my Morocco/Spain trip this summer, I have been on every-three-weeks infusion treatment. That means I have to squeeze in the travel to and from the US and whatever I want to do abroad in that time. Last fall, I left the day after getting chemo and came back the day before getting my next infusion. This time, I also had to fit my schedule with my nephew’s summer schedule (since this was his graduation trip) so I didn’t even get to stretch it out over the entire three weeks between infusions – but hey, I managed to squeeze a brain MRI in there when I got back!
As long as I’m on infusion treatment (and I certainly want to be on this treatment for a good long time) I am limited to three weeks, including travel time, as the max time I can be away. If I’m back on oral (aka pills) treatment in the future, I may be able to extend my travel time to a month between refills. But one thing is for sure – no taking off life and having a multi-month trip anymore.
2) I have to pace myself. I mean, when I was traveling for six months, I learned that, but these days, I REALLY have to conserve my energy. Sleeping late, daily siestas and sometimes taking a day off. I call the days off my “reset days.” I had to have two in Lisbon last fall where I just stayed at the airbnb all day and while it killed me to be in bed resting instead of exploring, it did help me recharge for the conference/exploring the next day.
In June, there was one day in Morocco where I had to sit out as Younes, Matt and Younes’ uncle went hiking for the day. I slept until noon, swam, took a shower and I’m so glad I did all of the above because I was at a breakdown point – I don’t think I could’ve lasted the day otherwise and had any energy to spend with with in-laws.
The other part of “pacing myself” means that I only pack the bare necessities I can get away with. Aside from the lower cost, I enjoy taking the local transport and walking and there’s no way I have the energy to lug large suitcases on subways, buses and up hills. Unless I know I’m renting a car or getting picked up, my go-to luggage has been one small rolling suitcase and one shoulder bag, compared to my large rolling suitcase, bulging backpack and bulging shoulder bag I took on my post-Peace Corps travels. That means I can’t bring back gifts for people no matter how much I want to.
3) Travel insurance is hella expensive. For a plan that covers pre-existing conditions and a few million in medical evacuations, I’m dropping $75-100 while I paid $15-20 for my husband’s and nephew’s plans. But I have to because hospitalizations and evacuations aren’t just vague, worst-case scenarios anymore – they are real possibilities.
4) I’m no longer the girl with the stomach of steel. In Peace Corps, when everyone else was complaining about stomach annoyances, I had none. Unfiltered water? Cow intestines? Sour milk? Bring it one. The one two things that could make me feel sick were overindulging in the booze and overindulging in the care package goodies from my mom (hello, Costco sized tubs of Nutella). However, chemo has left me with a weaker stomach. In 2015, I got a 24-hour stomach bug in Morocco. Last year, I got food poisoning from the airline food on the flight over to Lisbon and let’s just say thank god I was staying at a private airbnb where there was no one to witness my impressive display of projectile vomiting.
5) Which brings me to the next point. I have to be extremely careful about food, drink and generally taking care of myself. With my immune system compromised, any infection could quickly go septic and kill me. I still eat the same food I used to, but I don’t take chances. When I first visited Younes in his hometown, he was impressed that while other tourists only drank bottled water, I drank water right from the tap – no matter what tap it was. Now? I have become the classic tourist who will carry their sealed bottle of water with them everywhere and only take swigs from that. Water is such a minor thing, but I carried being able to drink the local water as a badge of pride, a symbol of how well I could integrate into local culture. It has been a hard thing to let go.
Nonetheless though, I am unbelievably grateful for the continued opportunities to travel. There are those who desperately want to travel, to knock places and experiences off their bucket list, who simply don’t have the medical stability to do so. So I do not mean this as a complaint but just an opportunity to educate on yet another way cancer has changed my life. As I reflect on the many quieter moments of my travels, such as lying by the guesthouse pool in rural Spain, looking out on the beautiful Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains, I think, “This might be different but different doesn’t mean worse.”
Teaser from my lounge chair