Holiday travel tips for cancer patients

Traveling with can be stressful for cancer patients and their caregivers, but there are ways to stay safe during the holiday season.

For the past four years, public health concerns have put a damper on holiday travel for many people, especially cancer patients and others at risk of becoming seriously ill from airborne viruses.

Last winter a “tripledemic”— the flu, COVID-19 and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)—resulted in a spike in hospitalizations and deaths throughout the United States. Some experts are saying the virus trifecta could occur again in 2023.

And if traveling with cancer wasn’t stressful enough, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced recently that it anticipates the 2023 holiday travel season to be the busiest ever. More than 30 million people traveled by air for Thanksgiving. And about 40 percent more American adults are expected to travel for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other winter holidays this year. That’s likely to mean flight delays and crowded airports, including restrooms and restaurants, where viruses are easy to catch.

So, should cancer patients avoid travel during the holidays, or are there common-sense measures they can take to travel safely?

“Things are a lot better this year,” says Suji Mathew, MD, Infectious Disease Physician and Chief of Medicine at City of Hope® Cancer Center Atlanta. “We’re definitely in a better place, thanks to vaccines and treatments available. But cancer patients, because they’re immunocompromised, should just be more vigilant.”

Before planning your out-of-town celebrations with family and friends, it’s wise to protect yourself using the travel safety tips covered in this article, which include:

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and are interested in a second opinion on your diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

Considerations when traveling with cancer

It’s important for cancer patients, especially those receiving treatment and/or taking drugs that suppress immunity, to consider the risks of becoming infected with one of the many common viruses. Viruses may be contracted through the air we breathe, water we drink, foods we eat and surfaces we touch. Before you travel, be informed by reading up on the following travel safety precautions.

Protect yourself against infection

Before traveling in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urge everyone who is eligible for the flu, COVID-19 and RSV vaccines to get vaccinated. (Note that all three vaccines are free to the public, regardless of health insurance status.)

If you’re traveling outside the U.S., your destination may have its own exposure risks. Popular destinations, including Europe, still have outbreaks of measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases. Before you travel, check the CDC’s travel health information page for your destination to see a list of the vaccines and/or medicines you may need. 

At least one month before traveling internationally, see your health care provider to get the vaccines and/or medicines you need for your specific destination, CDC experts advise.

Choose a safe method of travel

“Many patients have to or prefer to fly,” says Jeffrey Metts, MD, MPH, Chief of Staff at City of Hope Cancer Center Atlanta. But those who opt for car or RV travel have a lower risk of being exposed to viruses. “Traveling by car or RV is going to be safer than going through an airport, assuming that you’re in a small group and no one traveling with you is infected.”

Patients undergoing cancer treatments and those who have cancers that make them more likely to be immune-compromised are at higher risk if they’re infected, Dr. Metts says. Examples include blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, and certain types of pancreatic cancer.

However, if you must or prefer to travel by air, consider the following air travel health safety precautions.

Travel safely by air

  • Keep disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer handy. Even though airlines follow deep-cleaning procedures between flights, it’s still a good practice to wipe down your own area.
  • Wear comfortable clothing, such as pants and a long-sleeved shirt for increased protection. Remove your clothes as soon as possible after you get to your destination and wash them before wearing them again.
  • Clean your hands frequently with soap and water or hand sanitizer, especially after touching surfaces around your seat and before eating or drinking.
  • For those with lymphedema, wear compression sleeves and loose clothing, and move around as much as is comfortably possible to help prevent swelling due to changes in cabin pressure.
  • Get up once an hour to improve circulation, drink lots of bottled water, and skip alcoholic or caffeinated beverages. Staying hydrated and mobile may help prevent blood clots, which can develop during long flights and are a risk for patients with specific types of cancers as well as those undergoing chemotherapy or who had surgery

Take advantage of TSA services

  • Request a wheelchair in the airport if you’re not able to do a lot of walking.
  • Ask to board the plane early or have assistance when boarding.
  • If you need assistance during airport security screening, call TSA Cares 72 hours before your flight. The helpline (855-787-2227) is designed to help travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances.
  • If you don’t call ahead and don’t want to discuss your medical condition in front of strangers, use TSA notification cards
  • Before screening, let a TSA officer know if you have an external medical device, such as a port or ostomy bag, and where it’s located. Also, let the TSA officer know if you’d like a caregiver to accompany you during screening.
  • Breast prostheses and mastectomy bras are considered medically necessary and may be worn during screening. Patients will not be asked to remove them.
  • TSA has standardized screening procedures for various medical conditions and disabilities, including allowing a passenger with an ostomy bag to perform his or her own pat-down. The passenger’s hands would then be tested for traces of explosives. The passenger may still be required to undergo a standard pat-down on areas of the body that are not connected to the ostomy bag. TSA provides information specific to various situations.

Planning travel around cancer treatment

Cancer treatments shouldn’t prevent you from traveling this holiday season, but planning ahead is key. Talk to your care team about your upcoming appointments, including those scheduled for CT scans and other diagnostic imaging tests  used to evaluate whether and to what extent your treatment is working.

In some cases, doctors and patients may be able to discuss adjustments in treatment regimens to allow for holiday travel. Don’t put off treatment solely because of the holidays and without talking to your care team. Missing an appointment may cause an interruption in your treatment plan, allowing cancer to progress.

How soon after chemotherapy can you travel?

If you’re not experiencing side effects from chemotherapy treatments or are able to manage them, it may be fine to travel. Make sure you’re cleared for travel by your oncology team. To determine if travel is appropriate for you, your doctor may need to know details about your trip, including your method of travel, where you’ll be staying and if you’ll have access to medical supplies, pharmacies and medical care.

If you plan to fly, ask your doctor what precautions to take while aboard the plane, such as wearing compression sleeves or socks, since chemotherapy may put you at greater risk of developing blood clots.

It’s also important to consider the timing of your trip. Find out from your doctor when your white blood cell count is likely to be the lowest, since this is when you’re most at risk for infection. This usually occurs between seven and 12 days after you finish each chemotherapy dose and may last up to a week.

Avoid traveling on days you’re most likely to experience side effects, such as fatigue or nausea. This may vary by a few days with each treatment, so keep notes and book your departure dates accordingly.

Traveling during the busy holiday season can be a hassle when you’re not dealing with cancer. Taking a few extra steps will help ensure you’re feeling your festive best this season.

What cancer patients should bring while traveling

Many of the things you’ll want to pack for your trip are obvious, like your prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs you take regularly. But when traveling with cancer, you’ll want to anticipate items you may need if you become ill. Also, your body may be more sensitive to sunlight, bug bites and changes to your diet, so plan ahead by adding the items listed below to your packing list.

Prescriptions in their original bottles. If possible, bring at least an extra two-week’s supply of each medicine you take. You never know if your trip may get extended for unanticipated reasons.

Over-the-counter medications. Be sure to include drugs you use for pain relief as well as stomach issues including diarrhea and constipation.

Your medical records. Paper copies or a patient portal app on your phone will give you quick, accurate information if you need to go to a hospital or see a doctor while on vacation. The records should include your medication list, with dosages, and the surgeries you’ve had.

Health insurance cards. Carry the originals and also carry pictures of them on your phone (in case they’re misplaced or your wallet is stolen) of all health insurance cards (your regular plan and/or supplemental travel health insurance plan).

Emergency contact information containing the street addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of the following: family member or close contact, your health care provider(s) at home, lodging at your destination, hospitals or clinics (including emergency services) at your destination, U.S, embassy or consulate in the destination country or countries.

Food and beverages. To be sure you stay hydrated and nourished, carry bottled water and crackers or energy bars. Hard candies or lozenges may also help relieve common treatment-related side effects like nausea, mouth sores and dry mouth.

Sunscreen, a hat and protective clothing. Patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment may have increased sensitivity to the sun and sunburn susceptibility, so if you’re traveling to a tropical climate, bring what you need to protect your skin.

Infection protection. Use insect repellent to avoid mosquito bites that can lead to infection. Also bring a first aid kit to treat cuts and scrapes right away, especially in hot, humid climates.

When to avoid traveling when you have cancer

At times during your cancer treatment it may not be not safe to travel. For example, if you’ve had surgery, you may need to wait several weeks before flying. Consult with your doctor for recommendations since different types of surgery have different air travel restrictions.

Also, flying may not be safe for patients with some types of cancers or who are receiving certain cancer treatments, since changes in pressure and oxygen levels in the airplane cabin may cause serious side effects. Again, it’s best to talk to your doctor.

Naturally, don’t travel if you’re feeling sick—a headache, stuffy nose, sore throat or fever are all signs you may have a virus, such as the flu, RSV or COVID-19

If you’re feeling well and your doctor approves, don’t hesitate to travel to spend the holidays with loved ones. Creating new memories may give you the lift you’ve been longing for this season. Just be sure to guard your health by adding these holiday travel precautions to your checklist.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and are interested in a second opinion on your diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.