Trip of a Lifetime

Travelling, even on the best of days, is rarely stress-free. For someone living with cancer, it can be especially challenging. But as one family discovered on a trip to Paris together, what matters most is the experience itself and the memories it creates

Picture of You: Writer Jody Robbins and her daughter Eve Pigat reminisce of their mother and grandmother Carol Anne’s trip to Paris.

Photos by Ewan Nicholson

This is a tale of two cities, two daughters, two people that needed taking care of, and that desire to explore, which lives in all of us. 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 cancer involves planning carefully and paying attention to details. This I know now. I wish I had then.

In early 2006, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer and given 18 months to live. While there is never a good time for this type of news, the timing was particularly bad. In only a few weeks, my husband’s new job would be taking our family far away from our home in Alberta to London, England. For my mother, the idea of having to be away from her new granddaughter was especially difficult. It turned out nothing could keep her away, not even cancer.

And so, despite the diagnosis, plans were made for my mother, accompanied by my sister, to visit us for two weeks at our new home overseas shortly after we moved. Our main consideration was to work the trip in between her monthly chemotherapy treatments. We also made arrangements for the four of us – me, my mother, sister and daughter – to take a quick jaunt to Paris.

Such travel isn’t unusual for cancer patients. According to medical oncologist Dr. Bernie Eigl at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, “The majority of patients often want to travel in one way or form. We try to enable people to do as much as they can, safely.”

Back then we had no clue about her oxygen levels or airline medical desks. Her doctor’s consent was all the preparation we thought we needed. Of course, we had lingering concerns, but the joy on my mom’s face when she saw her granddaughter at the airport erased any doubts anyone may have had.

We took the first few jetlagged days slow, wandering through leafy parks, sampling cream teas and preparing for Paris. So elated were we to be reunited, touring our favourite neighbourhood haunts took precedence over exploring what-if scenarios. Preparation was light. Passports: check. Diaper bag: check. French-English dictionary: check. Unfortunately, packing extra pain medication and prescription refills somehow escaped our checklist.

Looking back, I was in denial that this trip was going to be different. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one in denial. Mom’s exuberance upon seeing her granddaughter distracted us all from how frail she was. Yet she was keeping up on walks and constantly smiling. Getting through a few rides on the Tube and the high-speed Eurostar train under the English Channel seemed like a non-issue.

The delayed Eurostar to Paris should’ve been our first clue all would not go as expected. Happily distracted by magazines and lattes, we remained patient.

But the delayed train led to a platform change followed by a mad scramble of hundreds of people. We made it onto the train but when we reached the Ashford International Railway Station, it stopped – and stayed stopped.

Along with 500 other passengers, we were herded unceremoniously outside to wait in the drizzle. We waited and waited until we realized we didn’t even know what we were waiting for.

Cold and concerned, we pressed train staff, who themselves had little more information than we did. They were dealing with crowds that reached more than 6,000 people that day and the resulting confusion. But I had to deal with a feisty toddler and a 70-year-old with a shot immune system standing in the rain. I was responsible for putting Mom in this dangerous situation, and I needed to get her out of it.

We took matters into our own hands and snuck back inside the station. Relieved to at least be back under shelter, we stood in the unheated station for what would become eight painful hours.

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 over 10 hours? But a curious thing happened that day. The thing none of us worried about just then was cancer.

Though Mom was cold and tired, she was determined. What sustained her during that long day weren’t the four energy bars she was plied with, but her attitude.

Our patience and perseverance eventually paid off. After officials determined a passenger priority list, we were put on the last train to Paris. Apparently, a house falling into a sinkhole beside the Eurostar track caused the delay. Who has a contingency plan for that?

We finally arrived in the City of Light 14 hours after leaving my flat in London. We couldn’t have been happier to see that cramped hotel room with its tacky bedspread. Mom went to bed, and spent most of the trip in it, as the drama of the journey caught up with her and developed into a cold.

Lofty plans for climbing the Eiffel Tower and meandering through the Musée d’Orsay were replaced with a few short excursions to sites that mattered most. Changing our game plan allowed us to appreciate the little things: dunking warm pastries in hot chocolate in the morning, laughing at French commercials and curling up under thick comforters.

Our best meals weren’t at Michelin-star restaurants, but eaten picnic-style on top of the hotel bed. With a thriving market close by, we feasted on rotisserie chicken with garlicky roasted potatoes, fresh-out-of-the-oven breads spread with pungent cheese and ripe, succulent plums for dessert. I can still see the juice dripping down my mother and daughter’s chins. These are the memories that remain vivid.

When we travel, we remove ourselves, and not just from our daily grind. Being outside our regular environment allows us to shed the layers that seem to define us – or how we define ourselves. When you travel, you have the opportunity to leave your past behind. For my mother, that was one of the most refreshing aspects of her travels.

After we returned to London, reality replaced optimism.

Mom no longer had enough pain medication to last the duration of the trip, and Tylenol 3 wasn’t cutting it. We skipped the airline’s medical desk (see sidebar), assuming that it would prevent us from travelling with Fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Not so, says Dr. Vincent Poirier, lead medical advisor for passenger health at Air Canada. “Travelling with your prescription and pain medications is rarely an issue so long as it’s kept within carry-on luggage.”

Fortunately, we were able to get Mom into our local doctor to have a prescription filled. By that time, we all realized how lucky we had been.
Bottom line, says Dr. Sasha Lupichuk, Tom Baker Cancer Centre medical oncologist, “Anytime a patient is thinking of travelling, they need to talk with their doctor and ask what’s needed to make it a successful trip.”

Instead of being defeated by our adventure en route to Paris, we kept going and adjusted our plans. What didn’t change was the joy in seeing each other, and being able to reconnect after months and miles apart. My mother died in June of 2008, but not before taking a second trip overseas to visit our family.

Eigl reminds us that travelling isn’t just about the patient. “Your mom is gone, but through this experience, she provided you and your family with memories you would not otherwise carry with you.”

So take that trip, but please talk extensively about your plans to your doctor first. Cancer may be a part of you, but as I saw with my mother in Paris, it’s not who you are.

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