A woman with stage 4 cancer had to road-trip across the US at the height of lockdown. Here’s how she did it without getting sick.

  • When most people with compromised immune systems were sheltering in place, Emily Veach, a 38-year-old woman with advanced cancer, embarked on a 2,400-mile cross-country road trip to move closer to family. 
  • In some ways, her experience with a life-threatening illness and confronting mortality made her better prepared for the pandemic than many healthy people. 
  • To keep herself safe while traveling, she packed and prepared her own food and drink, and camped out in friends' yards, and in one case, a barn. 
  • The journey allowed Veach to reclaim independence in a time when both her health and the state of the world could feel out of control.  
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Americans didn't know much about the novel coronavirus in April 2020, but one message prevailed: Stay home — especially if you're older or have an health underlying condition, which could make you particularly vulnerable to serious disease. 

But Emily Veach, a 38-year-old who has stage-4 breast cancer, took the opposite tact, embarking on a 2,400-mile solo road trip from Berkeley, California, to an Illinois village with a population of 600.

Due to the unpredictable nature of her illness, she wanted to follow through with her plan to move closer to family, even if it meant completely reimagining the way there.

That meant, for example, turning down a warm meal, good company, and a soft bed one night in Flagstaff, Arizona, and opting to pitch a tent just outside of the freezing rain instead.  

Emily Veach pitched a tent on the porch of a friend of a friend in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Emily Veach

Her choice, like many along the way, was not for lack hospitality or availability, but for her life: The experimental treatment keeping Veach alive is also seriously compromising her immune system. Not something that's on your side during a pandemic.  

"The last two fevers I had sent me to the emergency room — that feels like the worst possible ending to this journey," Veach wrote in a newsletter for women with metastatic breast cancer. 

Ultimately it was a success, with Veach arriving in her mom's air hug April 16 after five days on the road. "If you ignore everything else," Veach told Insider, "it was really a pretty sweet camping trip." 

Veach, a writer, patient advocate and soon-to-be podcast host, talked to Insider about the adventure and what it's taught her about reclaiming control in seemingly uncontrollable times. 

Veach's cancer diagnosis prepared her for the pandemic better than many 

When the coronavirus hit, Veach felt both threatened and prepared.

She knew how to avoid social situations that could be risky for her health. She'd developed large networks of strong virtual relationships. And, she was well-versed in the language of unexpected and unwanted change.  

Like her friends with similar diagnoses, she was "just more experienced at living with this kind of discomfort," Veach said.

Emily Veach passing through Cedar Crest, New Mexico.
Emily Veach

Having been first diagnosed with cancer at age 32, she was also familiar with confronting mortality.

The night Veach spoke to Insider, she was preparing to host yet another virtual memorial service to honor a friend from a support group who'd died from cancer. 

"We keep losing friends … I'm dreading going and counting [how many]," Veach said. "It's nonstop and it's hard to process and it brings up a lot of realities and questions for myself, and you just have to keep going." 

She copes by pondering it head on. Her soon-to-be-released podcast focuses on the lighter side of the dark issue, and is named "Happy Death." 

"The more that we, as a society, as individuals and families, can talk about death and living well and how we grieve," she said, "the better off we'll be when we actually need to talk about it." 

Veach brought all her own food and, in one case, was given a shovel to dig a 'toilet'

The third night of her road trip, Veach slept in a New Mexico horse barn. The temperature was set to fall into the 20s, so her host set up a propane heater and gave her snow boots and a shovel for her bathroom needs. 

She didn't end up using the latter, though, with some regret: "I'm a little bit ashamed I didn't totally rough it," she said. 

Emily Veach set up "camp" inside a horse barn one night when the temperatures dipped into the 20s.
Emily Veach

By others' definitions, though, she did. Veach brought her own food, including gallons of water, green tea and instant coffee, large Ziplocks full of butternut squash soup, mochi, baked sweet potatoes, protein shakes, and plenty of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. 

She packed it all into a rented SUV along with a cooler, a mini fridge that plugged into the car's cigarette lighter, a camp stove, and of course, her tent. 

For bathroom breaks, she stopped at rest stops armed with a mask, gloves, and Clorox wipes. "It was basically me and the truckers," Veach said. 

In other words, she was almost completely self-sufficient — an especially empowering experience for someone who's struggled establishing a sense of agency and control when her health feels anything but.

Relying on medicine to keep her alive, to say the least, is "a lot to deal with," she said. "One of my biggest revelations through this was just how strongly I still hold on to my life and the freedoms that I do have. It really made me feel a lot better to do this, and to share it with people."  

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