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How cancer might affect your travel

When have cancer, you may have a higher risk of blood clots, infection, lymphoedema (swelling) or sun sensitivity. You might need to take extra care when you are travelling. 

Blood clots

Some people with cancer are more at risk of developing blood clots (deep vein thrombosis or DVT). This is because they have more of the substances and proteins that help the blood to clot.

You might also be more at risk if:

  • your type of cancer has a higher DVT risk than others
  • you are taking certain hormone therapies, such as tamoxifen
  • you have had certain types of cancer drugs
  • you’ve had surgery within the last few months
  • you are not very mobile or active
  • you smoke
  • you take the contraceptive pill

Taking care while travelling

Sitting for long periods also increases your risk of developing a blood clot. So you need to take care if you’re travelling by car, plane, train or coach. The risk increases on journeys that are over 3 hours. Flights that are over 8 hours have an even higher risk. 

Check with your doctor before you travel, if you think you might be at higher risk of blood clots. You might need to take blood thinning drugs before and after some journeys.

Tips to prevent blood clots

  • Take short walks as often as possible.
  • Do simple leg exercises every hour if you can't move around much, such as bending and straightening your legs, feet and toes.
  • Do deep breathing and upper body exercises.
  • Wear compression stockings (these should be measured to fit you).
  • Have plenty of non alcoholic drinks.
  • Wear loose clothing.

It’s possible to walk around in most forms of travel, except by car. And even then you can stop for regular breaks.

On plane trips, walk up and down the aisle every hour or so if the seatbelt signs are off. Many airlines also give advice about exercises you can do in your seat. You can often find this in their in-flight magazine or on the entertainment system.

You can buy compression socks or stockings in chemists and at airports. It’s important that they’re the correct size. You usually need to measure the widest part of your calf. That's better than going by shoe size alone. 

Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if you have:

  • pain, swelling or tenderness in one area of your leg
  • warm or red skin in one area
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain

Infection

Some cancer drugs will increase your risk of infection for a while after your last treatment.

Most people will be fine after a few weeks. But if you've had intensive treatment, such as a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, you’ll be more at risk of infection for a few months. Your doctor might advise you against going abroad for the first 6 to 12 months after intensive treatment. 

Think carefully when choosing your destination and the type of holiday. Talk to your specialist if you’re in any doubt.

Tips for avoiding an infection

  • Drink bottled water and make sure the seal hasn’t been broken and the bottle refilled.
  • Be careful to only eat food that has been freshly cooked and is still hot.
  • Peel fruit and avoid raw vegetables.
  • Be careful with ice cream and ice in drinks. Avoid street sellers.
  • Use an insect repellent at all times to avoid mosquito bites.
  • Take a first aid kit and treat cuts and grazes straight away, especially in hot and humid climates.

Talk to your doctor about whether you need to take some antibiotics with you, for stomach bugs or cuts and grazes. And remember to ask your doctor about which vaccinations you might need.

Swelling (lymphoedema)

Lymphoedema is swelling of a part of the body. The swelling might become worse for some time when you’re travelling. This is most likely to be because you don't move a lot during the journey.

Tips for coping with lymphoedema while travelling:

  • Wear loose clothing and a well fitting elastic (compression) sleeve or stocking.
  • Keep the affected arm or leg raised and move around at least every hour, if possible.
  • Avoid extremes of temperature and sunburn.
  • Keep your skin clean and moisturised.
  • Use an insect repellent to avoid mosquito bites.
  • Clean cuts and grazes with antiseptic and cover them.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Don’t overdo things. Do the same amount of exercise as usual.

You might want to wear a medical alert bracelet to show that you have lymphoedema or are at risk of developing it. The bracelet alerts health professionals that they shouldn’t use your affected arm or leg to take blood pressure, blood tests or to give injections.

Taking care in the sun

Everyone should protect their skin from the sun. Exposure to strong sun isn’t good for anyone.

But after some cancer treatments, your skin may be more sensitive to the sun than the average person’s. Your skin may also be drier and more sensitive to chemicals, such as chlorine in swimming pools.

Talk to your doctor about whether your treatment will make your skin more sensitive.

Treatments that can make your skin more sensitive

Certain cancer drugs can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. These include:

  • doxorubicin
  • dacarbazine
  • fluorouracil
  • idarubicin
  • methotrexate

Radiotherapy can also make the skin where you had treatment sensitive to the sun for many years. Keep the skin covered for the first year after treatment and keep protecting it for many years after that.

Tips to protect yourself from the sun

  • Wear close weave cotton clothing.
  • Wear long sleeves and trousers.
  • Wear a hat that shades your face and neck.
  • Avoid the sun when it is the strongest between 11am and 3pm.
  • Use sunscreen with a protection level of at least SPF15 and 4 stars.

Travellers' diarrhoea

Travellers' diarrhoea is a common problem for all people going abroad, even within Europe. But you are more at risk of developing complications from travellers' diarrhoea if you have a weakened immune system.

Travellers' diarrhoea is caused by having food or water that’s contaminated with bacteria, viruses and in some cases parasites.

Symptoms can include:

  • passing watery poo (stools), 3 or more times a day
  • stomach cramps
  • feeling or being sick

Symptoms are usually mild and often get better without treatment within 3 to 5 days. You’re at risk of getting dehydrated so it’s important to drink plenty.

It’s sensible to take a few basic items with you in case you get travellers' diarrhoea, such as packets of oral rehydration solution. 

Ask your doctor about taking anti diarrhoea medicines and antibiotics with you, especially if you’re travelling to areas with poor sanitation and hygiene.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.