Can I Fly When I Have Cancer?

Many patients with active cancer can fly safely. If you have concerns about your fitness for flying, ask your doctor -- some cancer patients (such as those who have had lung-related problems, edema, or recent surgery) might be at risk for complications if they fly. Cancer Research UK’s brief list addresses situations when you shouldn’t fly. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network’s online article offers general tips about traveling with cancer.

However, even though you and your doctor think you can fly safely, sometimes the airline might prevent you from flying. Did you know airline employees have the right to deny boarding to anyone who, in their judgement, is too sick to fly or doesn’t meet their medical device regulations? It doesn’t happen often to cancer patients, but it does happen.

In April 2015, an Alaskan Airlines flight attendant took multiple myeloma patient Elizabeth Sedway off her flight because she thought Ms. Sedway looked sick and did not have a doctor’s note saying she was cleared to fly. In November 2013, US Airways flight attendants kept lung cancer patient Penny Blume from boarding the second flight of her cross-country trip because they said she did not have sufficient battery life remaining for her portable oxygen device. In May 2011, a Korean Air ticket agent refused a boarding pass to metastatic breast cancer patient Crystal Kim even though she carried approval to fly from her doctor, because the agent insisted the airline’s medical team should determine her fitness to fly. Though these situations were frustrating for the travelers, and the situations could have been handled better, the airlines were within their rights to deny boarding.

Because airlines are held accountable for the safety of their passengers and crew, each airline determines which passengers can safely travel in their airplanes. Airline employees who interact with passengers are instructed to “passively” screen passengers for health risks such as persistent coughing, recent surgery, or mention of terminal illness. Many airlines follow the recommendations in the International Air Transport Association’s Medical Manual and Aerospace Medical Association’s Medical Guidelines for Airline Travel. The IATA Medical Manual specifically states the following:
“Medical clearance is required by the airline’s medical department if the passenger…has a medical condition which may be adversely affected by the flight environment.”
Even if the passenger has a note from their doctor stating that passenger may safely fly, the IATA Medical Manual considers the doctor’s opinion to be only advisory because not all doctors are familiar with the medical effects of the flight environment. Each airline’s own medical department has the final say over which passengers are medically able to fly safely.

The IATA manual’s Passenger Care section lists the period of time a passenger must wait to fly after having experienced “acute and unstable” medical conditions like surgery or pneumonia. The manual specifically states that symptomatic cancer patients and those undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy must be assessed by a doctor with aviation medical experience -- which most oncologists do not have.

What can you as a cancer patient do?

If you have ANY cancer symptoms, or even just “look sick” (as you might during active treatment), be proactive! Self-advocacy isn’t limited to interacting with medical facilities and healthcare providers.
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