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Taking Flight with Cancer: Tips for Air Travel

By Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP May 30, 2017Pearls of Wisdom Blog

Summer travel is right around the corner. Traveling with cancer can present some additional challenges. With a little extra planning and preparation, your trip and time at the airport can be a smoother and more enjoyable experience.

Before you go:

You should talk with your doctor before making any travel plans. Sometimes it isn’t safe for people in cancer treatment to fly especially after surgery or if the immune system is severely compromised. Make sure you get approval from your doctor not only to fly but to receive any vaccines required for travel. Ask your doctor if you have any restrictions while traveling and request a letter stating you have clearance to fly, the medications you take and your doctor’s contact information.

Do some research when choosing your travel location. Look at the medical resources available where you want to go in case you should need medical care while you’re away. You should also check the CDC website to see if there are any travel warnings or precautions. Check with hotels to see if they have mini refrigerators available if needed to store medications that need refrigeration.

When making your plane reservation, think about the details of your flight that would be better for you such as location of your seat and flying non-stop. Contact the airline at least 48 hours before departing to ask about special policies if you are flying with medical equipment such as oxygen or if you need to order wheelchair assistance at the airport.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has many ways to help you through the screening process. You can apply for Pre status through the TSA to get expedited travel (at some airports). There is a fee for this but some credit cards offer a discount as part of your membership. You can fill out a TSA Notification Card ahead of time and bring it with you to communicate your medical condition discretely to the screening agent. The TSA Cares helpline (855-787-2227) helps people with medical conditions and disabilities by answering questions and giving additional assistance during the security screening process. Call at least 72 hours before your flight with questions or to arrange for assistance from a passenger support specialist at the security checkpoint.

If you will be staying out of town for a prolonged period, ask your supply company/mail order pharmacy if they can send your supplies or medications to your summer address.

When packing, bring more than the amount of medical supplies and medications you think you’ll need in case you are delayed in getting back home. Pack your supplies and medications in your carry-on bag, not in your checked luggage. Put medical liquids in a clear labeled bag that’s easy to take out during screening. It should be separate from your 3-1-1 bag. Bring a small portable cooler/insulated bag and ice packs if you have medications that need to be refrigerated. If you have an ostomy, you may want to precut some of your pouches before you pack them. Don’t forget any accessory products you may need and plastic bags to dispose of your pouches.

Be prepared for potential health problems while traveling and pack medication your doctor has approved for problems such as diarrhea, motion sickness, fever and skin rashes. Bring electrolyte powder, like Gatorade or Pedialyte , that you can add to bottled water. You may want to pack some snacks like protein bars if you are allowed to eat them.

The day of travel:

  • Cancer patients are at higher risk for developing blood clots. You may want to wear compression socks. Make sure to move your legs frequently while you are sitting down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has more information about preventing blood clots.
  • Dress comfortably for screening and traveling. Consider where the seatbelt will lie on your belly, you may need a light blanket or pillow case to cushion that area if you had recent abdominal surgery.
  • Arrive at the airport early to allow time for screening. Don’t forget to bring the letter from your doctor and the TSA notification card if you have one.
  • The airlines allow elderly fliers to be escorted to and from the gate by a non-traveling companion, but that companion will have to go through the screening process.
  • Before going through security, separate your medically-necessary liquids and equipment from other belongings. If you have an ostomy or a urinary bag, empty it before entering the security line and also before getting on the plane.
  • Notify the TSA agent if you have medically necessary liquids/medications and other medical equipment such as IV bags and syringes. Also notify them if you have areas of sensitivity or devices on your body like an ostomy or port. You can provide this information verbally or by presenting the TSA notification card. You will not be exempt from screening but they will screen you privately.
  • It’s important to stay hydrated. Purchase beverages after you have passed through security to take with you on the plane.
  • If you are weak or fatigued because of your cancer and treatments, then pre-board when they announce “we invite any passengers requiring special assistance to board now”. You may have to show your letter or just explain your circumstances.
  • Before the fight takes off, you may want to inform your flight attendant(s) if you think you may need to use the restroom even when the “fasten seatbelt” sign is on.
  • Reduce your risk of infection by washing your hands after touching any potentially infectious surfaces and before eating. It’s a good idea to carry travel packs of hand wipes. See Preventing Infection in Cancer Patients.

Happy travels!


Cancer and Careers Traveling with Cancer

Cancer and Travel Precautions

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Traveler’s Health

NCCN Traveling with Cancer

Oley Foundation Travel Tips with Parenteral Nutrition

Passport Health

Transportation Security Administration

Travel Insurance Review 6 Tips for Traveling with Cancer

United Ostomy Association Ostomy Travel Tips

Vegan Ostomy

Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

Author Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

Complex GI Cancer Nurse Navigator with Sarah Cannon Institute at Medical City Healthcare Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP is a nurse navigator specializing in complex GI health at Sarah Cannon at Medical City Plano in Plano, TX. She is also a certified chronic care professional health coach and enjoys educating patients and families.

More posts by Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

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