A se­ri­ous ill­ness doesn’t have to side­line your travel plans. With a lit­tle ad­vance plan­ning, you can en­joy a safe and sat­is­fy­ing hol­i­day

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - JODY ROB­BINS

Prepa­ra­tion is the best way to pro­tect your health while on hol­i­day.

FRIGID RAIN LASHED around us as we banged on the sta­tion doors to be let inside. Be­hind us stood hun­dreds of other pas­sen­gers, all frus­trated af­ter be­ing un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously herded off the Eurostar train. Just that morn­ing, we were hap­pily chug­ging our way to Paris, thrilled to be tick­ing off an item on our col­lec­tive bucket list, when sud­denly we found our­selves brav­ing the el­e­ments with no clue as to what was go­ing on. My sis­ter and mother had flown in es­pe­cially for this on­cein-a-life­time trip. I sup­pose now is a

good time to men­tion that Mum has stage IV cancer and was in the midst of chemo­ther­apy treat­ments.

Trav­el­ling can be stress­ful, even for the hardi­est of peo­ple. For cancer pa­tients, it’s an even more daunt­ing prospect. Managing a safe and re­lax­ing jour­ney when you have a ter­mi­nal ill­ness in­volves care­ful plan­ning and at­ten­tion to de­tail. This I know now. I wish I did then.

Back in 2005, my mother was di­ag­nosed with stage IV uter­ine cancer and given months to live. While there

is never a good time for this kind of news, the tim­ing was par­tic­u­larly bad. I was ad­just­ing (badly) to new mother­hood, my fa­ther had re­cently passed away, and my hus­band had ac­cepted a job of­fer in Eng­land.

Noth­ing could keep Mum away from her grand­daugh­ter, so de­spite her con­di­tion, plans were made for her and my sis­ter to visit shortly af­ter we moved abroad. Our main con­sid­er­a­tion was to work the trip in be­tween her monthly chemo­ther­apy treat­ments. That and to steal away to Paris – just an­other girls’ trip, al­beit a more glamorous one.

Such travel isn’t un­usual for ter­mi­nally ill pa­tients, ac­cord­ing to Dr Vin­cent Poirier, se­nior med­i­cal ad­vi­sor at Air Canada. “We’re see­ing it more and more. Medicine has evolved, mak­ing pa­tients more sta­ble. We used to see some who were not very pre­pared for last-minute travel, but now peo­ple are aware that it takes more time to plan, so they speak to their doc­tors and the air­line med­i­cal desk. It’s a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary in­volve­ment.”

We kept quiet for the first few days af­ter their ar­rival in Lon­don, wan­der­ing through leafy parks and sam­pling cream teas. We were all so elated to be re­united that tour­ing my new neigh­bour­hood took prece­dence over ex­plor­ing what-if sce­nar­ios. Prepa­ra­tion was light. Pass­ports: check. Nappy bag: check. Power adapter: check. Pack­ing ex­tra pain med­i­ca­tion

and pre­scrip­tion re­fills some­how es­caped our check­list. Her doc­tor’s con­sent was all the prepa­ra­tion we thought we needed.

Look­ing back, I was in de­nial that this trip was go­ing to be any dif­fer­ent. Mum’s ex­u­ber­ance over see­ing her grand­daugh­ter dis­tracted us all from how frail she was. There she was, keep­ing up on walks, eat­ing like a champ and smil­ing con­stantly. Tak­ing the high­speed Eurostar to France seemed like a non-is­sue.

Some­where in that space and driz­zle at the train sta­tion, I re­alised just how dan­ger­ous a sit­u­a­tion I’d put my mother in. More trains kept stop­ping and boot­ing pas­sen­gers out­side the sta­tion, where crowds reached 6000 peo­ple. No­body cared that I had a feisty tod­dler and a 70 year old with a shot im­mune sys­tem. Tak­ing mat­ters into our own hands, we found an un­guarded en­trance and snuck back inside. There we would stand, in that un­heated sta­tion, for the en­tire day.

We had plenty of time to worry about a lot of things. Would we ever get to Paris? Would we even make it home that night? Was I a bad mother for keep­ing my daugh­ter strapped in her stroller for ten hours? But a cu­ri­ous thing hap­pened that day. The one thing none of us wor­ried about just then was cancer.

Though Mum was cold and tired, she was de­ter­mined. What sus­tained her dur­ing that dread­ful day weren’t the four en­ergy bars she was plied with but her at­ti­tude. She was pretty chilled dur­ing the en­tire or­deal.

“Ill­ness can pre­vent pa­tients from do­ing things for a pe­riod of time, but go­ing on a trip nor­malises things for them,” says Dr Jen­nifer Spratlin, a med­i­cal on­col­o­gist at Ed­mon­ton’s Cross Cancer In­sti­tute. “In my opin­ion, travel may be healthy for [ter­mi­nally ill] pa­tients, es­pe­cially when con­sid­er­ing their men­tal health and qual­ity of life [cir­cum­stances per­mit­ting]. It can give them con­trol over how they’re liv­ing their life.” Our pa­tience and per­se­ver­ance even­tu­ally paid off: af­ter of­fi­cials de­ter­mined a pas­sen­ger pri­or­ity list, we were put on the last train to Paris. The cause for the de­lay? A sud­den sink­hole near the train track. Who has a con­tin­gency plan for that?

Ar­riv­ing in the City of Lights, 14 hours af­ter de­part­ing my Lon­don flat, we couldn’t have been hap­pier to see that cramped ho­tel room. Mum went straight to bed, and there she re­mained for most of the trip. The har­row­ing jour­ney caught up with her, and she de­vel­oped a cold.

Lofty plans for climbing the Eif­fel Tower and me­an­der­ing through grand mu­se­ums were thrown out the win­dow. Chang­ing our game plan forced us to fo­cus on and ap­pre­ci­ate the lit­tle things: bizarre French com­mer­cials, pas­tries dunked in thick

hot choco­late and the golden light shim­mer­ing on 17th-cen­tury build­ings as the sun cast its last rays.

Restau­rant reser­vat ions were can­celled and meals were eaten pic­nic-­style on top of the bed. With a thriv­ing mar­ket close by, we feasted on ro­tis­serie chicken with gar­licky roast pota­toes, pun­gent cheeses and ripe, suc­cu­lent plums. I can still see the juice drip­ping down my mother’s and daugh­ter’s chins and hear the sub­se­quent gig­gles. Th­ese are the mem­o­ries that re­main vivid.

Psy­chol­o­gist Irene Spel­liscy re­minded me that re­la­tion­ships aren’t fos­tered just by at­tend­ing events or vis­it­ing places to­gether. “The shared ex­pe­ri­ence is im­por­tant, but also pay­ing at­ten­tion to who peo­ple are and what they feel and think – this exchange fos­ters re­la­tion­ships,” she says.

To travel is to re­move your­self. Be­ing out­side our reg­u­lar en­vi­ron­ment al­lows us to shed the lay­ers that seem to de­fine us – or how we de­fine our­selves. Cancer was a part of my mother, but as I wit­nessed in Paris, it wasn’t who she was. Leav­ing her past – and chemo­ther­apy ses­sions – be­hind was the most re­ward­ing as­pect of her trip.

Trav­el­ling gives us more time to live in the mo­ment. How? Spel­liscy says it’s be­cause we at­tend to more new, un­fa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tions and the prob­lem solv­ing re­quired in that set­ting en­cour­ages us to pay at­ten­tion to things we don’t see in our every­day life.

“Mindfulness gives us the space to slow down our thoughts long enough to recog­nise and be avail­able for the mo­ment,” ex­plains Spel­liscy. “Liv­ing in the present with­out judge­ment or ex­pec­ta­tion ben­e­fits our men­tal health. It gives peo­ple more free­dom to ex­pe­ri­ence pos­i­tive emo­tions, in­stead of fo­cus­ing on how things might im­prove or what’s miss­ing. It al­lows us to sus­pend our judge­ment about what a sit­u­a­tion means and just no­tice it – and all of its colours, smells, tastes and tex­tures. Th­ese sen­sa­tions bring us joy and pro­voke last­ing mem­o­ries.”

Re­al­ity re­placed op­ti­mism on our re­turn to Lon­don. Mum was out of pain med­i­ca­tion, but a sym­pa­thetic Lon­don doc­tor re­filled her pre­scrip­tion. For­get the cost, we were grate­ful for our nar­row es­cape. In­stead of be­ing de­feated by our de­ba­cle, Mum took it in her stride, chalk­ing it up as a life les­son. She died in June 2008 but not be­fore tak­ing a sec­ond trip over­seas to visit our fam­ily.

I’m grate­ful for that Eurostar fi­asco. It taught me, a travel writer, that it’s not about get­ting to that dream desti­na­tion against the odds or nail­ing your bucket list. Ful­fil­ment lurks in that space be­tween all the places you’re try­ing to get to. Some­times, go­ing nowhere is the best jour­ney you can take.

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