COLUMNIST

'The best part was watching everyone smile': How a cancer patient experiences travel

Katie Jackson
Special to USA TODAY
  • Once they found cancer in her brain Stephanie Lee knew she wanted to travel.
  • When asked what her favorite part of their family trip was, she said: "The best part was watching everyone smile."
Stephanie Lee with her daughter Addy.

People joke about needing a vacation after a vacation. But Stephanie Lee was serious. My friend from high school needed a few days after returning from vacation before she had the energy to tell me about her trip. The first thing I asked was how long she was gone. It was "only" four days. 

"Only" is Stephanie's least favorite four-letter word right now. In October, an oncologist told the 32-year-old she could "only" expect to live another three to six months.

"In 2019 it started in my breast," she began. "In 2020 it was in my lungs." The worst part is that for a while, a cancer-free status seemed possible. I remembered Facebook updates about her shrinking tumors, that in a sea of pandemic-related complaints, those positive posts solicited hundreds of likes. 

"This October we found it in my brain," Stephanie told me via phone a few days after returning from San Diego. It was her family's first, and probably last, family vacation. Initially, they tried to raise money for it on her GoFundMe page. Ultimately, it was made possible by the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation.

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Traveling during treatment

Once they found cancer in her brain Stephanie knew she wanted to whisk her partner and kids away. "I wanted to see smiles on my family’s faces," she remembered. "I wanted to be able to make memories and not worry about stupid cancer for a change." 

She also wanted to stay within the U.S. And because she was going through treatment, her destination had to be a city with a large hospital.

"I was thinking of going to Disneyland," Stephanie said. "It would have been my dream. But, it wasn't my children's." Her kids play in the mountains near their home in Superior, Montana. Costumed characters aren't their thing. Still, Greysyn, 4, and Addy, 12, jumped at the chance to go to California. It would be their first time flying. It would also be their first time seeing the ocean. 

Stephanie Lee with her kids on their first flight.

"We hit up every beach within two hours," said the proud mama. "It was amazing watching them swim. They didn't care how cold the water was." 

Addy painstakingly picked out the prettiest shells, only to learn they housed crabs not keen on relocating. Greysyn took advantage of low tide, searching for sand dollars. The Pacific also won over Stephanie's longtime partner, Brandon. "He's ready to move," she laughed. It was also the Texas native's first time on the West Coast. 

I asked what they ate. Stephanie described a seafood marathon. "We had fish and chips and clam chowder for every meal." Their favorite was Harbor Fish & Chips, a no-frills family-owned institution within walking distance of their hotel. They stayed at SpringHill Suites San Diego Oceanside, across the street from the famous fishing pier – two things they’d talked about doing for years.

Sadly, Stephanie spent much of her vacation in resting mode. "I'm good for about an hour and a half in the morning and then maybe three in the afternoon," she explained. It's her low energy levels that bothered her the most. "The kids get home from school and want to tell me about their day and go and do things. But at that point, I'm already exhausted." 

Self-appearance is somewhat of a struggle during travel. Like many cancer patients, Stephanie has been through intense rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. The former cheerleader said goodbye to long, chestnut hair and thick eyelashes that never needed mascara. She said hello to double mastectomy scars and unwanted weight – courtesy of tumors that cause bloating. She hates how she has put on pounds since her diagnosis, but it's not uncommon. Nearly two-thirds of women with breast cancer report gaining 20 pounds after being diagnosed

Stephanie Lee

Mobility is another problem. While Stephanie and her family enjoyed complimentary tickets to the San Diego Zoo, they didn't get a wheelchair for their visit. Still, she said they had a blast despite not being able to see it all before her body gave out.

"Greysyn's favorite animals were the lions and Addy loved the snakes and alligators," she said, adding it was "amazing" to be there for so many family firsts. (It was also the kids' first time visiting a zoo.)

When I asked what her favorite part of their trip was, her answer caught me off guard: "The best part was watching everyone smile." 

'I wanted to make memories with my kids and partner'

Even as a patient herself, Stephanie puts others first. For example, most of the Facebook photos from her most recent trip – to New York City – are of her mom, the Thelma to her Louise.

She said she didn't see any Broadway shows. "Everything was still closed because of COVID. We went to get a wig."

The highlight of her first, and probably only trip to the Big Apple, was purchasing a $3,000 human hair wig. "I'm used to synthetic wigs I have to replace every three months," she explained. "My new one will last five years." 

Stephanie Lee with her mother in New York City.

Sadly, Stephanie's prognosis doesn't hint at her having five more years. "We needed some family time together, and I wanted to make memories with my kids and partner."

So what's next for Stephanie and her family?

"I'm waiting until January when they'll do a brain scan that will determine what we'll do," she explained. "But with my cancer being triple negative and in my brain, there's not really much more they can do besides the radiation they've already tried." 

Thinking out loud, I ask if she cried at all on her vacation.

"Oh God," she laughed, reassuring me that she wasn't bothered by the question. "I started crying once we got to San Diego and I've been crying since we've left." 

It's been years since I've seen her in person. However, I think I know Stephanie – always the cheerleader and glass-half-full kind of girl – well enough to know one thing: While there were lots of lasts on her trip, her tears were mostly tears of firsts.