It's summertime and for a lot of people, that means summer vacation! As an oncology nurse practitioner, I know that some people fighting cancer want to go on vacation too! Do you want to know how I know? Well, I am asked some variation of the question, “Can I go to the beach or lake?” at least a few times a week. This made me think that this topic is something that should be addressed more specifically for the cancer community. So let’s talk about it!
Before we get too much into this topic, bear a few things in mind.
We are still in an ongoing pandemic and though things are getting better, COVID-19 is still among us. However, hopefully, by now, most of us have had our COVID vaccines.
All cancer diagnoses and cancer treatments are not created equally and all people do not respond to things the same so what is ok for one person may not be ok for all persons. Understand?
The answer to can you (a cancer fighter) go to the beach or lake specifically will depend on where you are in your treatment plan and schedule, the kind of treatment you are receiving, and most importantly the answer that YOUR health care team gives you when you ask them.
Finally, I recognize that the beach and lake are not the only vacation options for the summer. However, they are two of the most popular options and are options that I am asked the most about during this season. So this post will specifically discuss these two vacation types. As an aside if you want to hear tips or recommendations for the mountains or theme parks as it relates to cancer patients let me know!
Now that I have set the stage. Let’s get on with it, shall we? So can cancer fighters go to the beach or the lake for summer vacation? Yes and no. That’s the short answer but that doesn’t tell you very much does it? Ok, here are some of the things that I take into consideration when a patient asks me about going to the beach or the lake.
Where are they in their treatment plan? The treatment plan includes whether or not they are currently receiving chemotherapy and or radiation and if they are pre or post-surgery.
How have they been doing with treatment? This includes if they have been tolerating the treatment well or poorly and how I anticipate they will do on a trip based on this answer and their treatment schedule.
What is the goal of their treatment? Goals include whether or not a patient is considered curative (treating with the intent to cure) or palliative (treating with the intent to get the best possible outcome without being able to cure).
If you are a cancer fighter reading this post then you and your family may know the answers to these questions. Your physician, nurse practitioner, and/or physician associate should definitely know the answer to these questions. So talk to them specifically before you make a decision.
So let’s say I have given a patient permission to go to the beach or lake. Here are a few things I am going to recommend that they do:
Absolutely use SUNSCREEN! This goes for white, black, blue, and green patients. Many cancer treatments make you more sensitive to the sun so using sun protection is a MUST. An SPF of 50 is ideal.
Wear a hat or use a head covering especially if you do not have hair. Use sunscreen on your head too. Wear sunglasses (some treatments make your eyes more sensitive to sunlight). Wear sleeves if you can tolerate it. Also, let me point out that there is specific swimwear available for women with breast cancer who may have had one or both breasts removed.
Don’t plan to be in the sun ALL DAY. Limit your time in the sun to whatever is reasonable based upon your situation. A good rule of thumb would be one to two hours. Around two hours is when you should be reapplying sunscreen anyway so that may be a good time to take a break.
Have plenty to drink. Treatment for cancer often impacts appetite and hydration so it can be easy to forget to eat and drink but DON’T. Keep a water jug or Gatorade bottle handy and drink it, refill and repeat.
Avoid large crowds. This is especially the case if your immune system is weaker. Because treatment impacts your immune system, you are likely having blood work checked pretty often depending on where you are in your treatment plan. And if I had to guess, your healthcare team is taking your immune system into account when they give you an answer about whether or not you can take a trip. I know that I do with my patients. Avoiding large crowds reduces the risk that you will catch an infection from someone. This was the case even before COVID-19 and is, even more, the case now with COVID-19.
Speaking of COVID-19, be sure to have gotten your COVID-19 vaccine IF you have been cleared to receive it from your health care team. Side note, most oncology practices are recommending that cancer patients receive the vaccine but discuss with your team specifically regarding the best timing for you.
If you have open wounds, you may need to avoid the water or at least use waterproof bandages. Certain cancers cause a wound. Certain treatments can cause a wound or impair wound healing. Some wounds are a result of surgery or a procedure. Depending on the type of wound and why you have it (an example would be skin burn from radiation treatment), you will need to follow the directions given by your health care team. Keep in mind that even if you can’t swim or play in the water you can likely still play on the water such as being on a boat or something similar.
DON’T go alone. In the event that you start feeling poorly, it is helpful to have a family member or friend who can help you. When a patient tells me that they want to go on a vacation, I always ask who is going with them.
Consider the timing. Depending on where you are in your treatment plan, some times are going to be better than others for travel. For example, let’s say a patient will complete chemotherapy in one week that will be followed by surgery later. There is usually at least a 4 week period between chemotherapy and surgery. This would likely be an ideal time to take a trip.
Don’t forget your daily medications or your maintenance medications. Just because you may not need them all the time doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take them with you on your trip. You don’t want to get caught without your nausea meds should an unintentional smell hit your nose the wrong way. You also don’t want to leave your stomach meds in the event that you eat something that causes diarrhea. Hope for the best but be prepared just in case!
Having cancer, though life-altering does not necessarily mean that you can’t do some of the things that you enjoy. This includes summer travel to your favorite beach or lake! It is paramount though, that you take the recommended precautions and that you NEVER travel against the advice of your healthcare team. Happy Summer!
Is there anything else that you would add to this list? Did you find this list helpful? Are there any other questions that you would like me to address? Have you considered traveling as a cancer fighter or family/friend of a cancer fighter?