Breast cancer lesson 131: Why some risks are worth taking

Oncologists and travel insurance companies have one thing in common. Neither seems to go out of their way to promote the idea of holidaying while on chemo. While my oncologist does take a rather relaxed view of getting out and about (he believes that infection is more to do with the bacteria you’ve already got in your body rather than what you’re exposed to), I am not sure even he would advocate packing my immunity boosting injections in a cool bag and setting off into the sunset in search of something I can actually taste. So, that’s why I didn’t ask him.

Now, before you think me reckless, I can assure you I informed my oncology nurse (haven’t seen my actual oncologist since April), researched all nearby hospitals, took down emergency telephone numbers and packed a whole bag of pills and creams to see me through (even without shampoos and hair products, you don’t travel light on chemo). I didn’t need a passport and the closest to extreme sports I got was walking up a steep cliff on the coast path. As far as risks go, escaping the big smoke for a breath of restorative fresh air and a few cliff top walks is a risk worth taking.

In many ways, it was the perfect holiday. We walked, we talked, we ate lovely food (some of which I could taste), we cycled the Camel Trail, we played pool, we relaxed and we even enjoyed the sunshine (as a childless couple, holidaying in July and August hasn’t happened since university)! As you saw from lesson 130, I managed to tick off number 17 on my Brighter Life list (click here for a recap).

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From a chemo perspective, I broke a few rules. I ate out in places I didn’t know. I ate shellfish and soft cheese. I gobbled up runny eggs. I may have slightly over-exerted myself on the Camel Trail. I carried a few too many heavy bags (less chemo more Lymphoedema risk). And, I went out in the sunshine. But, barring one spiked temperature that went down as quickly as it went up, I have returned relaxed, refreshed and a little sunkissed (factor 50 does allow a slight glow) and ready for my radiotherapy planning appointment and tattoos later this week.

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When it comes to holidays, I have always had a bit of a bad habit. For the first few days, I relax and revel in the fact we have a week away together. Then, as the halfway point comes, I suddenly become focused on time slipping away and the prospect of returning home. It always feels like everything speeds up as we race to enjoy what’s left of our break.

This time, however, I broke the habit. I am happy to say, I enjoyed every moment and every mouthful of food (the bits I could taste anyway). I enjoyed the life I’ve been given, rather than wishing it away.

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If I could sum up our holiday in a moment, it would have to be our walk to Rocky Valley, just north of Tintagel. Rocky Valley is small gorge-like valley close to the sea that is only accessible on foot. I heard about it on the BBC show Secret Britain back in 2011 (a man talked about it being the perfect location for his marriage proposal) and had been determined to visit it (back then in the hope the romance of the place would rub off on Duncan). Sadly, Duncan hurt his knee and couldn’t complete the walk in 2011 and, when we returned to the area in 2013, heavy rain stopped play! This time, however, we made it – navigating many steep paths in the process. I remember standing on the path explaining my 2011 proposal plot to Duncan (there was a lot of laughing) and thinking how lucky I am, not just to be alive, but to not have to think every romantic spot is a possible proposal destination (after 13 years, it was pretty exhausting). I also remember thinking that we nearly didn’t make the journey, content as we were with relaxing in and walking around Polzeath. It wasn’t planned (like most of my holiday adventures). But, we made the effort, made the most of our time there and ticked off something that should have been on my Brighter Life list. Reaching the little National Trust sign made me happier than I can describe.

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Of course, I am not advocating that we all pack our bags and travel miles from a hospital. But, taking a step away from London life, with its hospital appointments and daily cancer reminders, was really invigorating and helped me reflect on the last six months. For those of you contemplating a mini getaway on chemo, here are a few of my top tips:

  • Don’t forget your thermometer: You may get to leave the hairbrush at home, but a digital thermometer is a must. The battery on mine decided to play up just as I was spiking a temperature, but I am so glad I had it for peace of mind.
  • No scrimping on the sun tan lotion: Sun sensitivity is a big deal on chemo, so it’s important to cover up where possible and slap on the lotion. Always one to burn just looking at the sun, I was thorough in my application and am glad to have achieved a slightly healthy glow.
  • Set reminders for those pills: When life doesn’t follow its usual routine, it is easy to forget things like injections and pills. I packed everything from savlon to co-codamol for back-up, but set phone alarm reminders for my clonidine, injections and fluconazole. It worked a treat.
  • Know your options: I am a great believer that if you prepare for the worst, the worst won’t happen. That’s why I researched all hospitals in Devon and Cornwall and kept a list with me of essential numbers and addresses (along with the quickest route to a few key ones). Combined with my oncology card I knew I had all bases nicely covered, should the words Neutropenic Septicemia rear their head.
  • Give tap water a boost: I always order tap water in restaurants, but was slightly worried I wouldn’t be able to taste it properly and have to turn to sugary soft drinks (which get boring very quickly). Enter the humble lemon. This zesty treat transformed my tap water, making it taste lovely even with chemo mouth.
  • Work the menu: Eating out is a big part of a holiday for me. Determined as I was to enjoy it even with questionable taste buds, I opted for meals that included anything from lemon and capers to beetroot and white wine vinegar (the more acidic the better). Work out what works for your muted taste buds and then work it in to your menu choices. I nearly kissed the waitress on Wednesday when she gave me a free sample of white wine to see if I could taste it (it is always worth asking to see if they will oblige). It was beautiful, so we ordered a bottle!
  • Pack those snacks: There’s nothing like an extra strong mint or a jelly baby to help give your taste buds a lift. I also packed some spices so I could add some kick to our breakfasts and requested ice lollies for medicinal purposes (fruit pastilles lollies are quite exciting, I must confess)!
  • Take a break: Tempting as it is to pack the itinerary with day trips and adventures, it is important to pace yourself. After a few days of cliff walking, me and my bald head were in need of a quiet day or two. Rest and relaxation overlooking the sea is certainly much nicer and sitting in the shade in the living room at home!
  • Try something new: Whether it’s a walk to a previously undiscovered (by me at least) section of coast path, a ride on a steam train through the countryside or an activity you’ve been desperate to try, I would encourage you to seize the day. Enjoy every moment (as long as you don’t forget tip number 7 in the process)!
  • Make it memorable: We none of us know how many holidays we have left, and we are the only ones who can make each one a holiday worth remembering.

With a little bit of planning, a trip away needn’t be as risky as you think.

If you’re heading off soon, happy holidays! And, if you’re not, maybe it’s time to start work on a Brighter Life list of your own to encourage you to take the next step.