Like a lot of other cancer patients lying in hospital beds or in chemotherapy suites, I have spent a fair amount of time fantasizing about jetting off to a tropical island. A certain part of me knew that the fantasy was really about escaping my disease, but even so, I made a pastime of watching planes in the sky and dreaming of white, sandy beaches.
One of the hardest parts about developing leukemia at age 22 was how restrictive it was: My treatments left me highly susceptible to infection and with limited mobility. Airplanes were strictly off limits. Even a trip to my neighborhood bodega required a protective face mask and plastic gloves to shield me from germs. Extended stays in the oncology ward were especially difficult, because travel was so closely tied to my identity.
When I was growing up, traveling was my family’s modus operandi. Between the ages of 4 and 18, I attended six different schools on three different continents. In the world of expat children, there are roughly four types of “brats”: business, military, foreign service and “other.” I guess you could say that my younger brother, Adam, and I fit into the last of these. Our family was constantly moving among New York, Switzerland (where my mother is from) and Tunisia (my father’s homeland). My mother, an artist, and my father, a professor of foreign literature, often had to pick up and move for new work.
It wasn’t always easy, but I learned to love moving around. I quickly learned to be an expert at being the new kid on the block. Traveling gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself. You can imagine my excitement when, one year after my bone marrow transplant and two years after my cancer diagnosis, my doctors gave me permission to take my first big trip since cancer. Freedom, finally!
That’s how I found myself standing in line at Kennedy Airport last week holding an international boarding pass. After looking at dozens of pictures of exotic islands online, I had chosen the island of Capri in Italy as my destination. With its breathtaking coastal views and Mediterranean climate, it seemed like the perfect escape.
More than the destination itself, I was looking forward, for one week anyway, to being just Suleika, and not Suleika the Cancer Patient. I could have fooled most people. If you didn’t notice the catheter scars on my chest, or the slight bulge of a central line implanted below my collarbone, or the oversize pill case in my purse, I looked like a healthy young woman with a short hairdo that came across as more punky than post-chemo. In a strange way I was the new kid again. (Well, except to my boyfriend, Seamus, who was by my side during the trip and was probably worried more often than not.)
The anonymity that came with traveling was thrilling, and it was a welcome relief that no one would be bringing up the C-word. But even though I was anonymous to others, it became all too obvious to me that this wasn’t like the trips I’d taken in the past. And it didn’t have to do with the latitude and the longitude of where I was. My body wasn’t in the kind of shape to travel that it used to be. Despite the beautiful views, walking around the island was exhausting. The water was warm, but I hadn’t swum in two years – a few strokes and I was done. Foods may have been exotic, but they were mostly off limits to me. I had to stay away from the mouthwatering caprese salads for fear that the fresh tomatoes and basil leaves might carry bacteria harmful to my compromised immune system. By Day 3, I had come down with a cold. I spent the last few days under a parasol sipping hot ginger tea and blowing my nose every few minutes.
Don’t get me wrong. I still got a little time in the sun, a break from the chemo suite and my daily gelato (or three). All in all, I just feel fortunate to have been able to make the trip. But it wasn’t the escape that I had fantasized about. I wasn’t able to totally get away from Suleika the Cancer Patient, but maybe that wasn’t all bad. I missed my family, whom I’ve grown so close to since my diagnosis, and I looked forward to seeing my friends, many of whom are in cancer treatment just like me. For the first time in my life I wanted to go home – a concept that had always seemed so foreign to me growing up.
Suleika Jaouad (pronounced su-LAKE-uh ja-WAD) is a 24-year-old writer who lives in New York City. Her column, “Life, Interrupted,” chronicling her experiences as a young woman with cancer, appears regularly on Well. Follow her updates on Twitter or Facebook.