Travelling with lymphoedema presents the backpacker with more challenges than they can count on their grubby little fingers. However, if approached with a little extra care, exploring the world and its vast beauty is still very much doable.
So, with that in mind, I’d like to share with you some of the lymphoedema lessons I have learnt whilst travelling and how they’ve affected me both physically and mentally. Here it goes…
To quote my first international therapist, Veronica, whom I met in Singapore, “you’re in Asia now darling”. She said this in response to me asking how often I should be washing my newly purchased stocking. The answer? Every day. You’re in Asia now is referring to the dominating heat which breeds bacteria.
Hygiene effects where you eat, swim, sleep and even where you walk. You need to be aware of your surroundings everywhere you go. Temples with no shoes policies. Pavements with rancid puddles. Hostels with dirty showers. The list goes on and on. Bring anti-bacterial gel, wipes and be ready to embrace some pretty unhygienic environments.
Put yourself first
It’s frustrating. I’m twenty-four years old and want to be as care-free as my age would suggest. But, for all things lymph related (which is just about everything) I can’t be. Darting runs into the sea? “You go ahead I’m just going to put my sea sock on just to make sure there’s nothing sharp”. Rock climbing? “I’d rather not, I’m not too experienced and don’t want to cut my leg”. Could you just grab the charger from our room? “Actually, no. I’ve just sanitised my whole foot and don’t want to run bare foot through a dusty dorm”.
It sounds minor, but I’ve been travelling around six weeks and it doesn’t stop. It’s surprising how often you need to put yourself first, but you don’t really have a choice. You’ve got to suck it up and do what you need to do. Exploring a museum? Ask for a stool to take around with you. Catching a minibus? Ask to sit at the front. Queuing at passport control? Ask for medical assistance. It’s hard at first, and I required a firm nudge from my girlfriend, but once I had done it a few times it became much easier. Trust me, it’s not wise to ignore your bodily signs for the sake of politeness or saving face, it’ll just ruin your plans for a later date.
It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes – except your compression garment.
Ah Nelly, if only it were that simple. As we established in point number one, Asia is hot. Seriously hot. For lymphies (if you have the condition you’ll know all too well) heat is the killer (figuratively not literally). Unfortunately, if you want to travel around Asia you’ll need to learn how to manage your condition in the hottest part of the day. On numerous occasions the sun became too much for me and I had to retreat to the shadows like some sort of swollen vampire.
Rule number one is stay hydrated. Rule number two is always wear your compression garment. Rule number three is treat your limb whenever the opportunity presents itself. Seriously, if you have a moment, get that limb raised and start the drainage. It doesn’t matter if you are in a café or on a boat, do what you must.
For me, the best response to the heat has been water. I have a guideline that I have been loosely sticking to: pick places right by the sea and if you can’t, pick places with a pool. Hydro-running is super-effective and will help to shift your lymph.
Nobody has a clue what lymphoedema is
But then again, why would they? I have had some strange looks from all sorts of people. Travellers, tourists, families, locals – everyone is included in the people that pull weird faces at my leg club.
A few fellow hostel dwellers thought I was in an accident. Another thought I had burnt my leg. Most people just stare at it, look me up and down, momentarily try to figure it out, then proceed with their life. I did however have a man on a bike in Thailand cycle up to me, stop, point, then burst out laughing. It was like something out of an American high school. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking “that boy has an impaired lymphatic system, that is funny to me”, but nonetheless, it was sudden, jarring and caught me off guard.
Hazards. Hazards everywhere.
Travelling is full of wonder. Glistening seas, beautiful people, exotic animals and tasty food. It’s also FULL of hazards. Strangely enough you get used to it, but everywhere I’ve been to in South East Asia so far has been full of red flags.
Bugs, as you can probably imagine, are everywhere. Mosquitoes we all hate (sorry, if you don’t mind them we can’t be friends) and they’re expected. Red ants on the other hand are kind of cool but boy do their bites sting. I’ve found them at dinner on the table, on the wall whilst waiting for a bus to come, and even in my bed.
The pavements in Indonesia casually have enormous holes every twenty metres or so. It’s due to the cost of maintenance but they are particularly lethal at night time as they are not taped off. Buildings with broken windows, fences and walls are all too common and if you’re not careful it’s easy to catch yourself on a nail.
In Malaysia, dogs with a tendency to bite roamed around the Cameron Highlands. Most taxis don’t have seatbelts.
Been to this part of the world? Let me know some of your own experiences!