Cancer and flying
Some people with cancer or having treatment may be advised to wait before flying. Always get advice from your cancer doctor or specialist nurse before you make any plans.
Some people with cancer may be advised not to fly. This is usually because oxygen levels and air pressures change at high altitudes. You may be advised not to fly if you:
- are breathless
- are anaemic (have a low number of red blood cells)
- have a low number of platelets (cells that help the blood to clot)
- are at risk of increased pressure or swelling in the brain because of a brain tumour
- have recently had surgery to your brain, chest, bowel or eye
- have problems with your ears or sinuses.
Always get advice from your cancer doctor or specialist nurse if you are thinking of flying anywhere. They can advise whether this is safe for you. The Civil Aviation Authority also has information about fitness to fly.
If you have recently had surgery, your doctor will advise you whether it is safe to travel, or how long you should wait. They can also tell you if there is a type of travel you should avoid.
If you have had an operation to the brain, eye, chest or bowel
You will be advised not to fly for a while. This is because surgery may introduce air into the body. Flying can increase pressure and cause pain or stretch a wound. It is very important to follow the advice your doctor gives you. You may also want to check with the airline before you book, as they will have their own rules about flying after surgery.
If you have had your spleen removed
People who have had their spleen removed (splenectomy) are more at risk of developing an infection. You will need to take certain precautions, especially if you are travelling to an area where there is a risk of malaria. Malaria is a disease spread by mosquitos. It is mainly found in tropical countries, for example in parts of Africa, Asia and Central and South America. Malaria can be especially severe if you have had a splenectomy.
If you have a stoma
A stoma is an opening in the body. A tracheostomy, urostomy, colostomy and ileostomy are all types of stoma. Having a stoma does not stop you from travelling, but you will have to think carefully about preparing for your trip. Most hospitals have specially trained nurses, called stoma care nurses. Ask your nurse for advice about travel insurance and certificates, supplies and any dietary issues you may have while you are away.
If you have bowel or bladder changes
If you have changes to how your bowel or bladder works due to surgery, there are things you can do to make sure you are prepared while you are away. These include packing anti-diarrhoea tablets or any pads and supplies you need. You can also ask for a seat near a toilet on a plane.
If you have had a breast removed (mastectomy)
Try to tell travel companies in advance about any needs you have that could affect your travel. This includes travel agents, airlines, ferry companies and tour operators. It is best to talk to them before you book the trip to make sure the right support will be available.
You could tell them about:
- any problems you have moving around and whether you need a wheelchair
- equipment or medications you need to take with you
- whether you are likely to need oxygen during the trip due to breathing difficulties
- help or support you may need at different points in the trip
- whether you are travelling with a companion
- whether it would be helpful to sit in an aisle seat, for example if you have bowel or bladder problems
- your dietary needs.
You should try to tell travel companies as much as possible about how cancer affects you personally. This will help them understand what support you may need at different times during your trip.
The Association of British Travel Agents has a checklist for disabled and less mobile travellers. If you have problems moving around, you could complete this checklist and give it to travel companies. This will help them understand your needs.
There is a factsheet about travelling with additional needs or a disability at TravelHealthPro website.
Airlines and airports have special assistance teams. They can help to arrange any support you need when you travel.
If you have specific needs, tell your airline at least 48 hours before your flight. They can arrange for people to help you and for equipment to be available. If you need help with eating, using oxygen, taking medication or using the toilet during a flight, another person must accompany you. The airline will try to make sure you sit next to each other.
Many UK airports have a sunflower lanyard scheme. People with a hidden, or not so obvious, medical condition or disability can choose to wear a sunflower lanyard. This allows airport staff to recognise that you have a hidden condition, without you needing to tell them.
You should be able to collect a sunflower lanyard from an airport assistance desk, or order one in advance. Contact your airport before you travel to find out the best way of getting the lanyard.
In the UK and Europe, there are laws that mean you have certain rights at airports if you are less mobile. This includes the right to free help:
- at arrival points, such as at terminal entrances, train stations, bus terminals and car parks
- to reach the check-in counter and with registration
- with moving through the airport, including to toilets, if you need it
- getting on and off the plane
- during the flight
- with transferring between flights.
The help you can get may depend on which airport and airline you use. Make sure you let the airline know your needs at least 48 hours before you fly.
We have more information about taking medication abroad.
Before flying, all passengers must go through airport security checks. If you are carrying syringes, needles or portable medicine pumps, it is useful to get a letter from your doctor. You can show this to the airport security staff.
Sometimes people are randomly chosen to have a body search. If you are asked to have a body search, you can request that a security officer of the same sex does this. The body search is done in a private, lockable room. A family member or friend can come with you. You will not be left alone with just one security officer.
If you have a stoma, implant or a prosthesis
Airport security checks include checks on mobility equipment. You may want to tell security staff as you enter the security area. This may mean you are less likely to be searched. It may be helpful to carry a letter from your GP or cancer doctor that explains your situation.
Your stoma care nurse or equipment supplier should be able to give you a travel certificate that explains your situation in different languages.
If you wear a sunflower lanyard, this should make your journey through security more straightforward.
If you wear a wig
If you wear a wig, you do not usually need to have any extra security checks. But if a security officer wants to check your wig, you can ask them to use a hand scanner. This should mean you do not need to remove it. Very rarely, a security officer may want you to remove the wig. If this happens, you can ask to do this in a private space.
The processes for airport security can vary between countries and airports. In general, any security checks should be done sensitively.
Body scanning is carried out randomly at airports for security reasons. You may also be chosen if you have activated a metal detector. This could be due to a stoma, implant or external prosthesis. Security staff are trained to handle sensitive medical issues and passengers with respect.
If you are chosen, here are some things to know:
- You can ask for a body search instead of a body scan, if you prefer. This is a thorough hand search and you may be asked to loosen or take off some clothing.
- You can ask for a security officer of the same sex to check your scan on the screen.
- You have the scan in the security area, with a member of airport staff present.
The scan takes just a few seconds. After the scan, only you and a security officer see an outline of your body on a small screen. No body features or skin can be seen. You cannot be identified from the scanned image and you do not meet the security officer. Your scan is permanently deleted after a security officer has looked at it.
The policy on body scanning may vary at airports in different countries outside of the UK. You may want to contact the embassy for the country you are visiting, to find out their policy on body scanning.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our travel and cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fit for Travel. fitfortravel.nhs.uk (accessed June 2019).
GOV.UK. Drugs licensing. Available from gov.uk/guidance/controlled-drugs-licences-fees-and-returns (accessed April 2019).
Jane Chiodini, Travel Health Specialist Nurse. www.janechiodini.co.uk (accessed April 2019).
National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC). travelhealthpro.org.uk (accessed June 2019).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.