The Existential Clarity that Comes with Traveling with Cancer

The Existential Clarity that Comes with Traveling with Cancer

“Hi there … I’m loving your travel pics. I really wish I was able to travel while going through treatment! How do you do it?”

The little red notification glared back at me from my Instagram inbox, demanding my attention. It was a message from one of my virtual cancer friends responding to a story I’d posted of my travels in Morocco. I say “virtual” cancer friend because I don’t actually know this person in real life.

In fact, the majority of my cancer friends are people with whom I communicate solely via comments and direct messages, and whom I probably wouldn’t recognize if I saw them in the flesh. Yet, between the isolating nature of this illness and the community it generates online, I have a bevy of virtual besties with whom I can discuss all things cancer-related.

Still, the message I received while lazing by the pool on a 36-degree Celsius (96-degree Fahrenheit) Monday in Morocco came as a stark reminder of just how fortunate I am. Granted, I still have cancer, so perhaps not fortunate in the traditional sense. I’m fortunate in that, despite the unrelenting tenacity of the cancerous cells in my body, I was still happily sunbathing under a blazing African sun.

How was I, after going through six months of drug trials and chemotherapy, so capable of flitting around some sunny holiday destination instead of being supine on my bed, binging on Netflix series? The answer was simple: defiance.

I’ve rejected the “poor sick girl” stereotype for as long as I’ve danced with this disease. Of course, nobody’s running any marathons post-chemo, but generally, since relapsing, I’ve done everything in my power to carry on with life as normal. It has been my way of refusing to allow this disease to become my identity, despite having robbed me of so many of my external identifiers.

In my pursuit of normality, I seized upon any opportunities to travel, have adventures, fly in airplanes. I enjoy the intoxicating smells of foreign places, the anticipatory jitters that fill one’s being while glancing out of an airplane window and down at the intricate lives of strangers that seem to almost beckon one from the skies.

Yet, for the first six months of my diagnosis, I found myself grounded, banned from travel due to the incapacitating effects of chemotherapy on the immune system and the high chance of developing an infection. So, in January, while everyone I knew was jetting back home to my native South Africa, I was curled up on my couch in glacial London, watching holiday movies and drinking tea (and trying very hard not to feel sorry for myself).

But for the past two months, I’ve been on a clinical trial called immunotherapy. Instead of suppressing the immune system, this therapy works at strengthening it, so one’s own body can attack the cancer cells. Compared with chemo, it has felt like a walk in the park. In fact, I’ve found that, besides the general blanket of fatigue that I’ve come to accept as a permanent fixture in my life, I’ve felt relatively healthy.

My hair’s even started growing back. I now resemble a trendy millennial who confidently buzzed off their locks in an act of rebellion, rather than (as my boyfriend so lovingly teased me) “a cute, hairy lollipop.”

With a renewed season of vitality upon me, I jumped at the chance to meander through the medinas of Marrakech, to people-watch from the sunny terraces of Parisian cafes, and to splash around in the turquoise waters of the Spanish Mediterranean (being careful not to wet my PICC line, of course). Because the reality of living with cancer is that you never know what’s going to happen; moments must be seized while energy levels are high.

The added benefit of this whole traveling-with-cancer business is the life lessons that come with it. While abroad, I’ve found myself consistently overcome with waves of undulating gratitude and moments of existential clarity that reveal just how extraordinarily beautiful this world really is.

To travel with cancer is to realize that the value of life is, in fact, in the contrasts, the duality. Without sickness, one cannot fully appreciate health; the gloom of the hospital ward only exaggerates the sublimity of the African desert.

To travel with cancer is to be reminded that, no matter how dark it gets at times, there is always a stray cat lounging in a pool of sunlight in the middle of a marketplace somewhere. There is still the sweet sound of children laughing and street musicians strumming, and the sight of beautiful women draped in colorful cloth, dancing.

There are always friendly souls to encounter and delicious street food to devour, wild rosemary gardens to wander and empty skies under which one can cry out with joy.


Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.

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  1. Michelle,
    I enjoyed your column so much! You are inspirational!
    As a retired English teacher, I loved your descriptive details and
    how you showed us how you feel. I, too, have traveled since
    my diagnosis three years ago. I have not gone as far but I
    so enjoy everything more that I have cancer. I live in New England
    and just returned from a walk enjoying all the vibrant flowers
    starting to sway in the warm breeze. I get excited planning my
    next trip which will be simply a ferry ride to Martha’s Vineyard
    on Cape Cod and having family and friends enjoy a house I
    have rented there with wonderful floral gardens.

    Thank you and you have so many more places to enjoy as
    I do!
    Take Care,

  2. Cindy says:

    Michelle, you are such a talented writer! Your willingness to share your journey so authentically is a gift to others who may be struggling to put the thoughts and feelings into words. Your columns would make a wonderful collection of essays to publish as a book

  3. Patty Kovach says:

    Hi, well it sure sounds like you are doing well with your immunotherapy. I was on all three that are out, and it did nothing for me. I have Hodgkins for 16 years and I have yet to go into remission. My husband is retired and we hardly have any money to buy groceries, let alone travel. Yes, you are very fortunate! How I wish I could live like you are doing. But, I just taking it one day at a time. Take care. Patty

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