In July 2021, right after Ash and I sold our house and everything we owned in preparation for our new lives as digital nomads, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It was a huge shock and obviously disrupted our travel ambitions. Five months later, as soon as I finished active treatment, we stuck to our plans and left the US, coming back for my yearly follow ups.
I now take a daily synthetic thyroid, and supplements for my parathyroid. I also need blood tests every three months to track my thyroid levels and check to make sure my cancer isn’t coming back.
So now, in addition to researching the best restaurants and hikes in the area, I now also look up the closest pharmacies, hospital and labs. Refilling prescriptions as a digital nomad is just one more thing to factor in while moving to a different country every month.
I don’t often see this talked about on travel blogs, so here’s my experience traveling with a chronic illness and refilling medications while traveling.
Over the Counter Medication
Refilling over the counter medication is easy to refill in any pharmacy. I take in my current bottle and have the names of my supplements on Google Translate. I take Calcium and Vitamin D daily as support for my parathyroid and have had both refilled abroad. The pricing for these varies, but is slightly cheaper than in the US in my experience.
If you’re from the US, you’re probably used to going to a doctor’s office before having blood work ordered. While you certainly can see a local doctor while traveling, if you know exactly the blood tests you need, you can simply walk in a lab and usually have results the same day.
I had blood work taken in the Canary Islands and Montenegro. In the Canaries, I emailed the lab to make sure they provided my tests and they emailed back the next day confirming with pricing. Service was walk-in. In Montenegro, I simply walked into the lab with my list without an appointment and had results later the same day ready to email to my US provider. Each time cost less than $100.
Filling prescription medication abroad has been the most difficult to research. I reached out on Facebook groups before I got to a city as well as scoured blogs with little results on how to refill a prescription abroad.
If you’re traveling for six months or less, you can usually refill your medications for that amount of time at your local pharmacy if you tell them you’re traveling.
Before we left the US, I contacted my pharmacy saying I was traveling abroad and wanted my medication as far out as my refills allowed. This got me six months of my daily meds.
Of course traveling long term, I started to run out of my levothyroxine in early June. When I arrived in Split, Croatia, I went to the local pharmacy with my prescription bottle and prescription from my US doctor. Unfortunately, Croatia doesn’t offer the same exact medication I’m on, so I was told I’d need to see a local doctor or the hospital to write me a new prescription. My sweet Airbnb host referred me to her endocrinologist. I emailed their office explaining my situation and the next morning they emailed me a script. I took that to the pharmacy down the street from me and they filled it immediately (no need to wait or come back hours later like a US pharmacy). A hundred day supply cost me 23 Kuna, or $3.22.
I’m thankful that my US doctor works with me while I’m traveling and I do my best to honor that trust and keep up with any tests she needs. Cancer did not stop me from traveling. Even though it complicates things, finding a way to manage my health abroad is worth the freedom and wonder of this lifestyle.