Breast Cancer, the TSA, and You

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide

    You probably have been following the uproar over airport screening that has erupted recently.  As a breast cancer patient or survivor, you probably have special concerns.   Before you fly check out the regulations that may apply to you.


    If you have lymphedema, you probably fly with a compression sleeve or bandages.  I usually try to wrap after I go through security, but last summer on international flights I had to go through security while changing planes.  Sure enough, I got pulled for extra screening because of my bandages.  The screeners said my bandages came under the category of casts and had to be checked. 

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    Casts are covered under the same regulations as prosthetic devices, which many breast cancer survivors wear.  Here are the actual TSA regulations about casts and prosthetic devices:


    • Security Officers will need to see and touch your prosthetic device, cast or support brace as part of the screening process.
    • Security Officers will not ask nor require you to remove your prosthetic device, cast, or support brace.
    • During the screening process, please do not remove or offer to remove your prosthetic device.
    • You have the option of requesting a private screening at any time during the screening of your prosthetic device, cast or support brace.
    • You have the right to refuse the offer of a private screening; however, you will need to allow the screening to be conducted publicly if you wish to proceed beyond the security checkpoint.
    • You may have a companion, assistant or family member accompany and assist you into the private screening area (once he or she has been screened) and remain throughout the screening process.
    • TSA will make every effort to have two Security Officers of the same gender as the passenger being screened present during the private screening.


    Last summer the screeners checked my bandages for explosives.  On my departing flight, they used an X-ray machine to check my arm.  On my return flight, they put me in a full-body scanner. I did not disclose that I was wearing a prosthesis, and I wondered if the full body scanner would see it.   If it did, no one commented. I did get a rather complete pat down in full view of other passengers.


    As a cancer survivor, you may be concerned about the radiation of the body scanner.  The amount of radiation is supposed to be minimal, but I have already been exposed to much more radiation than the average person with my extensive radiation treatments and with follow-up tests.  I admit I am concerned about the radiation, but I'm not sure if my fears are founded.  Frequent travelers should also be concerned about radiation exposure.  It may be just a little, but it will add up. 


    I'd suggest discussing the radiation risks with your doctor who knows your own history of radiation exposure and your risk of a new cancer or recurrence.  You have the right to ask for a pat down instead of the scanner, but then you have to be prepared to let people touch you in very personal ways.


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    From reports on the news, it appears that some screeners are not following all the regulations for people with medical issues, so you might want to take along a copy of the regulations that apply to you, just in case you run into a screener who is unfamiliar with breast cancer issues.  Considering all the thousands of people who fly each day, the flagrant examples of mistreatment are probably not typical.


    When I traveled this summer, I found the attitude of the screeners made all the difference in how I felt about what happened to me.  The screeners in the New York airport I departed from were kind and sympathetic.  The ones in Detroit when I returned to the United States were brusque to the point of rudeness.  In New York, I felt that the system was working to keep everyone safe.  It would be very easy to hide a weapon in lymphedema bandages.  One-breasted women could easily smuggle dangerous substances in a prosthesis, so I didn't mind going through an extra check. 


    In Detroit, I felt humiliated.  The difference was not in the technology, but in the attitude and demeanor of the screeners.


    During the upcoming holiday traveling season, stand up for your privacy rights if you run into a screener who is not following regulations.  However, if your cancer issues subject you to extra inconvenience, keep it all in perspective. Let's focus on the joy of being alive to travel to visit new places or reunite with our families.



Published On: November 22, 2010