From Scotland to Mexico, with two stomas
Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Laura MacKenzie gives advice about travelling on a long-haul flight as an ostomate
Hi, my name is Laura MacKenzie. I am 42 and live in Wemyss Bay, Scotland. I wrote this article in 2018, aboard a Boeing 787-8 at 40,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean on my way back from Cancun, Mexico, to Gatwick, England. But let’s rewind a year to late November 2017, when I had been home for only a matter of days, following my life-saving total pelvic exenteration surgery.
I was diagnosed with stage 4 bladder cancer, and surgery became necessary. It’s a radical, invasive surgery and can only be carried out if the cancer hasn’t spread to any other parts of the body. If doctors believe that you are healthy enough to survive the procedure and if there is a good chance it will rid you of the cancer, the team will go ahead. I was told the surgery would result in the creation of two stomas—a urostomy and a colostomy. Prior to the surgery, I was told there was a just over 60% chance that the cancer would be gone completely. Then, 29 days after surgery, my luck changed and I got the all-clear. Fast forward a year and I was still all clear, but you are only as good as your last scan, and my next scan was scheduled at the end of November 2018.
My passion has always been travelling. Due to my surgery and recovery period, I was forced to cancel two long-haul holidays that I had planned well before I’d even been diagnosed. I am a big planner and super-organised, so, as soon as I saw myself getting strong enough, I started to plan to travel again. First, I started with a night away, then weekends, then 2-week long trips to Europe and then finally this trip, a 2-week long-haul to Mexico (on 10-hour flights there and back).
As I’m a thorough planner, this needed military precision planning. So, before my trip, I calculated my usage of stoma pouches and accessories, doubled the amount and then added more. I made sure I had my signed travel certificate from Colostomy UK, a copy of my prescription items and emergency contact details for my supplier,
as well as confirmation of my extra hand-luggage allowance from the airline for my supplies. I would suggest that you do not trust checking all your supplies into the hold. It is common that airlines lose bags, or even send them to the wrong destination, and you don’t want to be stuck for any length of time without at least 5 days supplies.
Food, outfits and products
The day before flying, I was careful about what I ate. I can pretty much control my colostomy with a diet, with the odd exception, which I will come to later. The start of my journey required a 1-hour flight from Glasgow to Gatwick, followed by an overnight stay at a Gatwick hotel. My urostomy is retracted and, therefore is prone to leaks, so I was a bit anxious on the morning of the flight to Mexico. However, after an airport cocktail—a bloody Mary, which is a start-of-holiday tradition for me—I was a little more relaxed about it. I’d packed three spare outfits in my hand luggage; this may seem excessive, but on a bad day I really can go through this many However, things improved recently by chance. When I was changing my urostomy bag in a hurry, I accidently applied it almost horizontally instead of the usual vertical position, and this seemed to improve the leaks. So, since then, I have stuck with this way of applying my urostomy bag. I also use stoma rings and flange extenders to prolong the life of the bag and provide extra security, respectively, and I also wear a leg bag when travelling. In the end, the flight went without incident. Having visited Cancun before and knowing that the immigration queue can be over 2 hours, I opted for assistance at the airport. This accelerated the journey through the airport and removed the angst of either a bag leaking in a big queue or needing to change/empty it and not be able to.
Hiccups with my stoma bag
During my holiday, I had a couple of nights when, for no rhyme or reason, my urostomy leaked. With that came a required change of clothes. I had a very upset stomach one morning (putting it down to the late afternoon sushi, which had been sittingin a glass display cabinet), which resulted in a change of bikini. Normally, I use closed colostomy bags, but, with my upset stomach, I was going through so many. Not being sure how long it would last, I moved on to drainable bags, which I always take as a backup for a scenario such as this. Since I had last used a drainable colostomy 2 days after my surgery while in the hospital, I have to say I struggled with emptying it—this was mostly due to the smell and whole idea of it.
Packing extra supplies is essential
Overall, the holiday was a success. I realised very quickly that overpreparation is the key Taking extra dresses and underwear, extra bikinis and spare supplies at all times was necessary. This was also true for the trip overall, and taking plenty of extra supplies was sensible.
Who did you travel with?
I travelled with the company TUI.
What did you enjoy the most about your trip to Mexico?
I enjoyed being able to kick back and relax. I work hard in a busy role, so holidays are important to me for down time. I enjoyed trying local dishes, along with tequila tasting, which was great fun.
Did you try any Mexican cuisine?
Yes, I love the cuisine! I tried lots of the usuals, such as tacos, but I also tried more traditional, dishes, like tortilla soup and Mexican fish stew.
What are your top three travelling essentials? (non-stoma related)
I would recommend the seats with extra leg room for a comfortable long-haul flight, arranging reliable travel insurance to ease your mind when abroad, and an open mind to learn about new cultures.
- So, are you ready to take a holiday abroad post stoma surgery?
- You must feel physically recuperated, up to the travel and change of routine
- You need to be able to comfortably change your bag and know what affects your output, such as a change in climate, diet or routine
- You should consider how you feel about your bags mentally and emotionally and whether you feel good about them – I believe this step is crucial.
- If you are struggling emotionally, it is probably better to consider a shorter journey closer to home. I have learnt to cope well when anything goes wrong, but emotionally you do still have that twinge that reminds you why you have your bags. At the start that lingers, but with time it passes in a matter of seconds or minutes with each incident (I don’t use the word accident, as I don’t have any control over this).
- Nonetheless, with the right determination, motivation and belief in yourself, anything is possible with a stoma, or even two!
Laura MacKenzie writes about her top tips when travelling.