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Bucket-List Trip Provides Joyful ‘Cancer-Free’ Week

Article

The best part of the trip was that I didn’t think about cancer. My husband and I didn’t talk about it for a whole week, and no one knew I had it.

cartoon image of blogger and ovarian cancer survivor, Kelly Irvin

Before my stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2016, I loved to travel. I had wanderlust down to my bones. I liked exploring new cities, beaches and mountains. I liked staying in hotels. I didn’t even mind flying.

Then cancer robbed me of my mobility, my stamina, my strength and my ability to ward off infection. Then came the pandemic and we all stayed home. All that hunkering down gave me plenty of time to think about how much I missed seeing the world and how little time I might have in which to do it. I became angry at how these two diseases combined for a one-two punch, keeping me from seeing my family, my loved ones and the world.

Finally, this year the pandemic eased. The world reopened for business. I was determined to throw caution to the wind. For our 35th wedding anniversary, I asked my husband to let me fulfill my bucket list wish of a trip to Costa Rica. I spent a year and a half as a student at the University of Costa Rica in the late 70s. I’d always wanted to return. My husband was game, if I could find a safe, accessible travel package thatwouldn’t jeopardize my health and that we could afford.

Big ifs!

My oncologist blessed the idea, and he convinced the sponsors of my clinical trial to allow me to hold treatment so that I wouldn’t have to cope with severe stomach distress on the trip.

I found a travel agency that specializes in arranging trips for people with disabilities. Because of nerve damage caused by paraneoplastic syndrome (PNS; in layman’s terms when your body’s immune system tries to fight cancer by attacking your central nervous system), I can’t walk unassisted. The travel agency planned a weeklong trip that included hiking (on an electric cart) on swinging bridges in a rainforest, a catamaran and snorkeling, hot springs, a boat trip in an alligator-infested river and more — all carefully orchestrated to be accessible. We even had our own guide who drove us everywhere in our own van. Wheelchairs were provided where needed. Hotel rooms were accessible.

I also made the plane reservations with wheelchair assistance provided by the airline. People suffering from chemotherapy-related side effects such as fatigue, muscle weakness and lack of stamina, can utilize this free service. It makes navigating long hikes through TSA screening to faraway gates possible. We also chose airport valet parking to cut down on how far we would have to walk from far-flung parking garages with suitcases, backpacks, a walker and a cane. And we selected seating in the plane’s “comfort” sections to give us a little more distance from other passengers. These two choices were expensive, but were worth it in light of my health challenges.

The trip was fabulous. I played in the ocean (in an amphibious wheelchair) for the first time since my diagnosis with PNS. I rode an electric cart through the rain forests. We were enchanted by monkeys that came up to visit at the hotel pool. Sloths slumbered in nearby trees. The food was incredible. I joked that we would need wheelbarrows to cart us back to the plane.

I honestly didn’t foresee the most incredible gift the trip would bestow on me. I didn’t think about cancer for an entire week. My husband and I didn’t talk about it for a whole week. No one knew I had it. No sideway glances. No "how are you doing, really how are you?” questions. For a few days I could inch closer to the Kelly I was before my diagnosis.

Some might see it as foolhardy to venture to a foreign country with a compromised immune system. But the fact is I’m past my expiration date as it is. I want to squeeze every last drop of joy from life. We were careful. I had all my shots: COVID boosters, pneumonia, flu, DTP, even shingles. I took all my prescription drugs in my backpack on the plane so I wouldn’t get separated from them in the event of lost luggage, along with a letter from my oncologist in case customs had a question about them. I also kept a list of those medicines in my billfold, along with my oncologist’s information—just in case.

Traveling with cancer and a disability is a major undertaking. But it is so worth it. Now that we’ve tried it, my husband and I are already thinking about what’s next. Nothing as challenging as a trip overseas—yet—but I’m headed to Virginia in early May to visit my daughter, son-in-law and three grandkids for a week. Then in July my husband and I will head to Kansas to visit my extended familywhom we haven’t seen since before the pandemic. I’m dreaming of a catfish fry, fireworks and lots of reminiscing.

I don’t know where my wanderlust will take us after that, but for as long as I have the strength and the stamina, I plan to see as much of the world as possible. Have passport, will travel!

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