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Managing Chronic Illness While Traveling

For people with compromised immune systems, or those who are undergoing chemotherapy, the world can be a scary place — especially when it comes to travel. Managing care away from home may feel more like an uphill climb that may not be worth the effort, no matter how much you want to travel.

But it is possible to travel safely with a chronic illness, as long as you’re aware of the risks.

Laura Farrington, DO, a medical oncologist at City of Hope Chicago, says that risk of infection, blood clots, and the availability of medical care raise the biggest concerns where traveling.

These can be mitigated, though. Farrington recommends wearing a KN95 mask wherever you go, especially on planes and in airports, even if it’s not required. Everyone traveling with you should also wear a mask and follow guidelines for handwashing.


“Being well prepared and creating a travel plan that can accommodate one’s medical and emotional needs can greatly reduce anxiety and worry.”


If you have cancer, congestive heart failure, or inflammatory bowel disease, or if you are older, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest getting up every two to three hours, as well as exercising or stretching while sitting, and wearing compression stockings to reduce the risk of blood clots. Wear compression sleeves to combat swelling and blood clots, and carry extra medicine. 

Most of all, listen to your body. If it tells you that you can’t or shouldn’t travel, then don’t.

A little prep will go a long way

Does the idea of traveling when you need care still make you nervous? It’s understandable. Cut back on the worry by creating a thorough plan before you leave home.

“Being well prepared and creating a travel plan that can accommodate one’s medical and emotional needs can greatly reduce anxiety and worry,” says Cynthia Shaw, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Authentically Living Psychological Services in Chicago. Shaw suggests a few ways to prepare: 

• Pack extra medication, and keep it with you in your carry-on luggage. 

• Bring personal items, such as a heating pad or therapy cushions.

• Carry snacks, water, and vitamins.

• Identify hospitals and clinics near your destination before you leave. 

• Bring an emergency contact list and a medical information card, badge, or bracelet.

Once you’ve got all that ready to go, try to remember that travel is good for your body and soul.

“Developing camaraderie and connections to others, new and known, is essential for continued emotional and physical well-being,” says Mark Bilkey, PsyD, gerontologist and associate chair of the department of counseling and integrated programs at Adler University. “In addition, the joy of adventure creates the opportunity for renewed spirit and increased vitality.”

Farrington agrees. “People undergoing treatment don’t need to be prohibited from enjoying travel,” she says. “You do need to have that quality of life and things to look forward to, and if you are physically feeling well enough to travel, usually traveling is better for your quality of life and your mental state than staying home.”


Budgeting for Travel with a Caregiver

If you have a chronic illness or are undergoing chemotherapy, having a caregiver with you can truly make a difference. They’re there to take care of your needs, enabling you to focus on enjoying yourself. They can lighten the mood as well, if things get stressful, Farrington says.

But bringing a caregiver along can cost a significant amount. Think of the person as another member of your family joining you. You’ll need to plan for their expenses, food and drink, and lodging. And you’ll need to pay their wages on top of that.

Make sure you create a budget that allows for these expenses, and visit a place that falls within that price range. 

If you find that you need some extra money for a caregiver, you may be able to get a grant. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers caregiver cost assistance, and Road Scholar also offers scholarships for travelers.


What If I Get Sick While Traveling?

Though not highly likely, it’s possible that if you’re traveling and keeping up with the proper precautions, you could still get sick. If that happens, first things first: Call your doctor or your physician’s 24-hour line. They’re the best line of defense against something that’s not immediately life-threatening.

There are a lot of things that can be taken care of pretty quickly and easily if we tell you to take the right medications that we’ve probably already prescribed,” Farrington says, noting that you should also always be carrying nausea and diarrhea medication, just in case.

Most of the time, the issue can be managed with just that quick phone call. But if something more urgent is happening, you may need to go to the local emergency room. Chest pains or trouble breathing, for example, need to be addressed immediately and in-person.

If you’re in another state, it should be easy enough to find the nearest urgent care facility. But if you’re in another country, you may need to ask your accommodations to call an ambulance. If someone else can drive you, be sure they have a phone with Google Translate on it in case of language barriers.

Just remember that you can get through this, Bilkey says.

“There is nothing great or small that you have not gotten through in life,” he says. “You have everything you need to successfully navigate through any difficulty, as well as seek and experience the joys in life.”

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2023 print issue.
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By Jennifer Billock

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