A cancer diagnosis robs us of many things. For an avid traveler, its like a bird being trapped in a cage.
Jen Sotham is a freelance journalist and screenwriter/director. She was working as a university professor in Busan, South Korea, where she lived for almost a decade, when she was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in 2014. Still doing battle with the beast, Jen has since returned to New York, where she has been using her voice to share her story through film, essays and her blog, jenvscancer.wordpress.com
I was born with a compass in my heart. As a child, I was obsessed with my Jacques Cousteau photo book and my atlas; memorizing maps was my hobby. The thing was, my parents weren’t really travelers. Or at least, they couldn’t afford to be after I was born. Sure, we took annual trips to Los Angeles to see my grandpa, visited my cousins in Austin, did the obligatory theme park trips with family friends. But the only time as a youth that I (kind of) left the country was when a rich friend’s parents took six of us to the Bahamas for her sweet 16, where we did a bunch of things that 16-year-old girls shouldn’t do.
Then, I discovered the Grateful Dead. I spent every university break spinning and dancing in every corner of the United States. I even spent a summer hitchhiking all by my lonesome across the country in the back of big rig trucks. I traveled within the country quite a bit in my 20s… and then bigger things called.
For my 30th
birthday, I gifted myself with a six-week solo backpacking trip through Western Europe. Soon after, I did a Costa Rica jaunt with two of my girlfriends. Then, through a journalism job, I was invited on a press trip to cycle the west of Ireland. I fell hard and fast. I knew that a career as a writer was going to be a long, hairy trek and travel became my Gatorade.
At 32, I took a job teaching English in Busan, South Korea. My intention was to stay there for a year, to save enough money for a trip around the world, then return to the U.S. I stayed for eight years, and added the stamps of 25 countries to my passport. In 2010, I did a three-month trip through Central America between teaching contracts. I had just scored a job for the fall as a professor at a university in Busan – a gig with a 10-hour work week four months of paid vacation. (I know, right?!)
While doing my advanced Scuba certification in Honduras, I noticed that a mole on my inner knee had changed. During the rest of the trip, the edges of the mole continued to blur, the color went from brown to black, and it became raised. On a stopover in New York, a family friend who was a dermatologist biopsied it and confirmed my worst fear: it was melanoma.
I went back to Korea as planned, had two excisions until the margins were clear. One year later, a PET scan (which only cost me $100, thanks to Korean national health insurance) turned up clear. Two years later, a metastasis to a local lymph node required surgery and radiation therapy. To this day, I often wonder what would have been had I, at that point, returned home to be treated by a melanoma specialist who didn’t require a translator to communicate with me. But I can’t travel back in time, so I try not to let that “what if” be too heavy of a burden.
Once the distant metastasis came, just one year later, it was time to head back to New York to seek out more expansive treatment options. I immediately started an immunotherapy combination, and three months later, I had a complete response. I celebrated with a road trip through Europe with a close friend. A few months later, on a family vacation to Mexico, I got to check scuba diving with sharks off my bucket list.
I remained disease-free for a year, and then my cancer came back – much, much worse. Since that recurrence in April 2016, I have been in constant treatment, and have been unable to travel. Even when I do have time between treatment cycles, I have to take so much time off from my part time teaching job for medical appointments that travel is just not viable. Not to mention that, with the side effects attached to many of these treatments, I cannot take the chance of being too far from western medicine. I had to cancel a trip to visit Korea last year because a 16-hour flight over the Pacific was just too risky.
Travel is still very much in my blood. It’s in my soul. Unfortunately, it’s not in my life. As a result of my own travel history, I’ve accumulated a wealth of friends who are globe trotters. The downside to this is that Facebook can be absolute torture. Last week, a friend posted a request for recommendations for her upcoming trip to Zanzibar, my number one dream destination. I clicked “like” and then left a comment wishing her happy travels, but inside, I was smoldering with envy.
The upside to having friends who travel is that they actually come see me. Since my recurrence, I’ve had a constant succession of close friends from around the world stay with me – visits that have strengthened bonds that I cherish.
I usually try to end my posts with some sort of positive spin, or an epiphany that shines a ray of optimism. But being grounded by cancer just plain sucks. While living in the now does relieve much of the stress of having cancer, my “now” is devoid of true adventure. My wanderlust – one of the things that makes me “me” – is unfulfilled.
As my Instagram feed fills up with my friend’s photos of Zanzibar, I will do what I always do… click the little heart below each mind-blowing picture. And although I mean “the heart,” I am genuinely happy to see my friend enjoy her holiday – living vicariously is not all it’s cracked up to be.