Jet Lag & Chemo

Since my insurance in China does not offer enough coverage for an entire year of chemo, CT scans, blood work and doctor visits, I have to fly from Hong Kong to Houston every other month for tests and treatments. When I first learned about my insurance situation I went through the stages: anger, confrontation, pleading, begging, sadness and then acceptance. Now, it’s just part of my life and traveling back and forth across the Pacific every other month doesn’t seem that strange–although I know it is.

Less than 24 hours after my body is pumped with Pemetrxed and Dexamethasone, I’m at Houston Intercontinental getting on a flight usually for Tokyo, although sometimes Chicago and this time around Newark (which caused me to actually travel completely around the world for a treatment/tests. My doctor in China calls Pemetrexed, “chemo light”, but it does affect everyone differently. I am thankful that I’ve experienced few side effects from it. I still have hair, although its texture, thickness and curl is nothing like my hair pre-chemo. I get very tired and weak, but not so much that I can’t get out of bed or walk to school most days. I will get a metallic taste in my mouth and the only foods that sound appetizing to me are mashed potatoes, grilled cheese and rice for a few days.

But most importantly, most of the side effects don’t occur until the third day. So, hopping on a plane in less than 24 hours is key to flying for more more than 20 hours because it means I’m getting the brunt of the side effects at almost the same time I’m walking into my apartment. Also, doing the entire trip within a four-day span means I’m staying just one step ahead of jet lag while traveling. I never have time to get used to the U.S. time zone, and my days are filled with so many appointments at MD Anderson that I don’t have time to think–just do.

Of course, my 1.5 days at home before going back to work feel like a cinder-block wall just crashed on me. Luckily, I can practically anything delivered to my door–including grilled cheese sandwiches–in China! But traveling such long distances under less-than-ideal circumstances has taught me a lot about travel:

1.) Get TSA pre-check! It usually does make a big difference, although I haven’t found my Global Entry to be quite as useful. In fact, one trip through Houston actually took longer using Global Entry than if I had just gone through the regular line.

2.) Always try for an aisle seat. There is nothing worse than being seated next to someone who sleeps (or pretends to sleep) for the entire flight and you cannot get up to go to the toilet or stretch your legs when you want.

3.) If you have a carry-on, it pays to get in line early for boarding so your bag is stored close to you.

4.) Asian airlines usually have superior food, service and on-time flights compared to their U.S. counterparts. But, when they’re bad they’re horrendously bad. Most independent travel sites will give ratings on the flights. I will rarely take a Fair flight and will never take a Poor or Very Poor flight…believe me, you will have a story you’ll be telling people for years if you go on one of those flights!

5.) Travel pillows really are better across the front of your neck than around the back of your neck, and sleeping with my head leaning forward on the seat in front of me is usually the most comfortable position.

6.) Stress is your enemy. Think of travel like getting on a rollercoaster. There is very little within your control and once you commit you just go with the ups and downs…TSA wants to check your bag, you get pulled aside, there’s a delay, the person next to you has stinky feet…very little you can do about it and stressing only makes it worse.

While I do not recommend doing the chemo-trans-oceanic flight plan, it actually puts me a little into a zombie-like state. While I drink a lot of ginger ale on flights, in a strange way I’m in a different state of mind and the downs of travel really don’t seem as bad as what I’ve just gone through medically. So, things just roll off my back a lot more quickly and I am a much more relaxed traveler–which makes a world of difference when your in a flying tin can 35,000 feet above the ocean for 12 hours straight!

How it Started

We were traveling in Bali and I noticed that things did not feel right. My scuba diving was never technically great, but now I was floating around like a giant, dead puffer fish. I had to rest a lot at our casita, and my stomach ached. I knew something was wrong, but I thought it was my bad diet and lack of exercise.

I had been a personal trainer/pilates instructor before moving to China and was in great shape. But since moving out to China a year earlier, my body had changed. After returning from Bali, I still waited about a month before going to the doctor. Doctors in China were scary to me, and often gave a diagnosis like too much cold air coming in through the bellybutton or not drinking enough hot water. Eventually I looked as if I was pregnant and had to go to my doctor, who quickly sent me to the hospital where doctors looked as if they had heard the saddest news when I said I was unmarried with two daughters.

I had a CT scan, which I sent to my sister-in-law (a radiologist). The minute she saw the scans, she said I had to return to the U.S. immediately. Through chemotherapy and surgery I have regained enough energy to return to work and travel the world with my daughters. I live by my bi-monthly scans at MD Anderson, and by God’s grace they’ve all come back stable.

Cancer is now a part of my life and my daughters’ lives, and it’s always there. But we do our best to keep it in perspective. While I wish I had another ailment that isn’t listed as terminal, but┬álife is terminal and God has just given me the gift of perspective. Carpe Diem!