There was a time when doctors had few tools to use in the battle against cancer, but since the 1950s, new diagnostic procedures along with advanced chemotherapy, radiation, and surgical procedures have revolutionized cancer treatment. Fiberoptic probes and miniature video cameras let doctors see inside the body without making large incisions. Small openings in the skin and muscle tissue are enough for laparoscopic surgery (inside the abdomen) and thorascopic surgery (inside the chest). With new methods, surgery isn’t always necessary. Tumors can be frozen with liquid nitrogen, vaporized with laser light, or overheated with radio waves.
In the twenty-first century, techniques for the early detection of cancers of the skin, colon and rectum, uterine lining, and prostate gland have led to prompt treatment and improved survival rates. That, combined with an ever-growing emphasis on prevention, has reduced the death rate from cancers of many types. Today more than 25 million people worldwide have survived cancer for five years or longer. Many of them are cancer-free. Others are still undergoing treatment. Either way, the numbers of people who “beat cancer” are growing. Thousands of medical travelers are among them.
Why It Works for Medical Travel
Does oncology work for medical travel? In many cases, the answer must be no. For some patients, the cancer is too aggressive or too advanced to be postponed for even a day or a week while medical travel plans are made. For still other cancer patients, the physical, mental, and psychological burdens of the disease and the side effects of its treatment are too overwhelming to be faced anywhere except home.
But in other cases, cancer is not such an aggressive enemy, and the time needed for planning and comparison shopping is available. One good example is prostate cancer. Every year, nearly 700,000 men worldwide find out they have it. The diagnosis process includes an assessment called a Gleason score; that number rates how far developed and fast spreading the cancer is. For many men, a low Gleason score means a chance to compare treatment options and evaluate opportunities for quality care both at home and abroad. Increasingly, the procedure to beat prostate cancer can be quick and effective, with reassuringly predictable outcomes.
Men with prostate cancer aren’t the only ones who travel to see an oncologist. Patients with certain types of cancer may look abroad not only for lower prices, but also for the latest in anticancer treatments that may be difficult or impossible to arrange at home. Some types of bone marrow transplants and experimental stem cells transplants, for example, are easily obtained in countries such as India or Turkey, but of limited availability in other nations. Some experimental treatments (such as gene therapy) are available overseas, too, where it is sometimes possible to gain admission to a clinical trial that has not been approved in one’s home nation. In other cases, patients who face long waiting lists on their country’s national health insurance plan sometimes decide they prefer immediate treatment abroad over a lengthy and uncertain delay in treatment at home.
The bottom line is that cancer treatment is invariably expensive, often placing patients in unbearable financial straits. For those where the additional hardships of travel are worth the financial trade-offs, savings can run into the tens, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars.
Where to Go for Treatment
Cancer patients may travel to save money or to seek out specialty centers and proven expertise. One good example is Severance Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, where Dr. K. H. Rha, one of the world’s leading specialists in robot-assisted prostatectomies, practices. He trained at the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins University in the United States and, since 2005, has performed more than 2,000 procedures using a state-of-the-art, computerized da Vinci Robotic Surgical System.
Another good example is a US-born and trained oncologist who now practices at the Pacific Cancer Center in Singapore. Dr. Steven Tucker is an expert in prostate cancer. Since moving to Singapore in 2006, he has also served as president of the International Medical Travel Association (IMTA), a worldwide organization with a mission to connect patients and quality healthcare professionals around the globe.
Oncology patients may also want to investigate Turkey as a destination for treatment. Turkey currently has more JCI-accredited hospitals than any other country in the world. Most of Turkey’s major facilities offer excellent cancer treatment programs. For example, Gayrettepe Oncology Center in Istanbul is the only oncology center in Turkey to model itself after the modern “comprehensive cancer center” found at only 23 sites in the US. The center can connect online with cancer centers in the US via satellite. Another major oncology program is based at Anadolu Medical Center near Istanbul, where 60 percent of the services provided are oncological.
Many cancers are rated by their "stage," which simply means how advanced the cancer is and how quickly is it spreading. Be sure you understand the stage of your cancer. If it has been caught in an early stage, then your options for treatment are broader than if your cancer is more advanced. Some cancer treatments, including radiation and chemotherapy, can affect your ability to have children. Tell your doctor if you want to have a family.
Cancer patients need to consider their physical and mental strength carefully and objectively when planning medical travel. They may not be well enough to handle the rigors of long-haul flights to the other side of the world. A weakened immune system may increase the risks of picking up a debilitating “bug,” and such common discomforts as the air traveler’s swelling legs, the fatigue of jet lag, and the all-too-common “traveler’s diarrhea” may prove too demanding for those under an oncologist’s care. Cancer patients shouldn’t consider treatment abroad without the full cooperation and support of their at-home specialists. Second and third opinions may be required.
If you do decide to go abroad for cancer treatment, plan to stay a while. Don’t rush the treatment process. Your overseas specialist will need time to assess your condition and monitor the outcome of your treatment. Depending on how you respond, your oncologist may want to change your treatment regimen, perhaps lowering your dose of chemotherapy drugs or scheduling longer breaks between doses. Give yourself time to work your way though some of the typical side effects of certain treatments, including fatigue and hair loss. These conditions aren’t life threatening, but they do require a doctor’s attention. Whatever the situation demands, be flexible. Your body and your doctor will tell you when it’s safe to go home.
Home Again Tips
Ask doctors to identify their single biggest problem in treating patients and they’ll answer with one word: noncompliance. Patients don’t follow instructions. They stop taking their medications. They don’t show up for appointments. They don’t call when symptoms of side effects or complications arise. Cancer patients must promise themselves and their doctors total and complete compliance before, during, and after any treatment. Nothing less than a perfect record will suffice, especially for medical travelers whose local doctors need to track their slow return to health and take steps to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.
Last updated on 9 March 2014
Continuity of Care—Critical to Success
Continuity of care can be a challenge for patients who travel for medical procedures. Don’t make the mistake of too little communicationeither with your hometown doctors or with your in-country surgeon.
Make sure your local doctors understand your plans before you schedule your travel. Make sure, also, that your overseas physician (or surgeon) has access to all your medical records. Complications and misunderstandings can arise if information is missing or incomplete. Be proactive! Here and abroad, make sure that your physicians know anything and everything that is relevant to your case.