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Rules of the road – travelling with Lymphoedema

travelling with Lymphoedema

written by Julie Auton

Last summer, I was invited to join a group of women on a trip to Machu Pichu in Peru. What could be more exciting? The four-day excursion would involve hiking over mountain passes and through rain forests during the day, and sleeping in tents at night. Porters would carry our heavy duffle bags, along with the food and camping equipment. All I had to carry was a daypack filled with personal items. Always one for adventure, I signed up.

The trip was memorable; however, I brought back an unwanted and unexpected souvenir--lymphoedema in my lower arm. The combination of flying six hours each way, lifting and hauling luggage through airports and hotels, and carrying a heavy daypack for four days was more than my body could tolerate.

While staring at my swollen arm, the reality hit me that my lifestyle was forever altered after breast cancer, when I had 37 lymph nodes removed. Surgery put me at risk for developing lymphedema; therefore, I needed to proceed with caution in future travel decisions. 

Business travel is a necessity for many women, while others travel for sheer pleasure. But the wear and tear that results from conditions on the road – between jet lag, erratic mealtimes, lack of sleep, and the challenge of exercising and eating right – places stress on the body. All of which can cause the onset of lymphoedema. So, how can breast cancer survivors manage their health while travelling? I discovered it’s a matter of planning and awareness.

Lymphoedema And Air Travel - 9 Useful Tips


Here are Julie’s top tips for lymphoedema care when travelling.

  1. For air travel, lymphoedema patients should wear a compression sleeve because a pressurised cabin can cause swelling. Even those who are at risk are advised to wear a preventive compression sleeve when they fly.
  2. During the flight, try to move your arms around to encourage circulation. 
  3. Don’t lift or haul heavy luggage, briefcases, computers or any other equipment or gear. Avoid carrying bags and handbangs over the shoulder of your affected arm. Invest in luggage with wheels and keep small change on hand to pay porters. It’s worth every penny.
  4. Once you’re at your destination, maintain healthy behaviour to minimise the harsh effects of stress.
  5. Take time to exercise. This helps move lymphatic fluid through your body. Take a brisk walk while exploring your destination, or go for a swim if your hotel has a pool.
  6. Eat a healthy diet, especially low in salt, since it retains fluid. Drink lots of water to keep your body hydrated. And if you consume alcohol, limit your intake to one drink per day.
  7. Get plenty of rest.
  8. Perform deep breathing and massage exercises for lymphoedema daily.
  9. Use the same precautions out of town as at home - such as avoiding saunas and hot tubs

Being away from home is no excuse for taking a vacation from managing lymphoedema. If only I had paid closer attention to these rules of the road, my trek to Machu Pichu would have had a perfect ending instead of landing me in the lymphoedema nurse’s office. This doesn’t mean I need to fear travel or limit my life.

As long as I care for my affected arm, the only souvenirs I’ll bring home next time will be those I want to keep.