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Getting Through TSA as a Cancer Survivor

As many of you know, recently hubby and I escaped the cold February temps and headed south for a week. We really needed to get away for a lot of reasons. Last year we drove to the same destination. This year we decided to travel by air thanks to “flying stand-by perks” we received via son number one who recently started working part-time at an airport.

“When you fly stand-by, you must be very flexible,” son number one instructed us right off the bat.

This really means direct flights are rare, you must be patient, you must be prepared to get kicked off a flight even after you’ve sat down in your seat and you must remember to be extra polite to the ticketing agents at all times. You get the idea.

Stand-by is just that, stand-by. You stand by hoping and waiting for a seat. We were hoping and waiting for two.

But this post isn’t about flying stand-by; it’s about going through TSA (Transportation Security Administration) as a cancer survivor.

While traveling I started wondering if I had some look to me that said suspicious, watch this one. Also, there seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies at different airports. I guess there must be a lot left up to the individual judgment of TSA workers.

Is this OK?

Maybe, maybe not.

Here are a few examples of my recent experiences going through TSA. Perhaps sharing them will be helpful to someone.

At one airport, I was told I absolutely must remove my hoodie sweatshirt I was wearing, but thankfully not before they made sure I was wearing something underneath. I was. At the other airports, no need, although I did remove it anyway just to simplify things, or so I thought.

When I went through the line at the next stop with hoodie removed (thinking I was saving time), once again, I was pulled aside and told this time I needed a chest pat down. Seriously?

Why? I have no idea.

No problem. I’m pretty used to all kinds of chest pat downs at this point.

Moving on to the head gear… two times I was told I simply must remove my baseball cap. Two times I was told no need. On one occasion when I was required to remove it, I must have looked worn down because the female TSA worker looked at me sympathetically and asked, “Do you think you feel up to removing your cap for me?”

I guess I must have looked more haggard than I thought!

“Yes,” I answered and handed it over, though reluctantly I must admit, as I am still quite self-conscious about going capless in public.

These were my “clothing experiences.”

But wait, there’s more.

Before going through one of the scanners, I realized I might have trouble raising both arms up in the air and over my head as high as the diagram inside the scanner indicated I must, but I managed after telling the guy, “I’m not sure if I can do this.”

“Would you rather go into a different room and have a pat down?” the guy asked.

“Uh, no thanks,” I answered as I managed to get both arms raised high enough I guess, since he let me through.

At the final airport, I attempted to walk through the scanner area again, hoodie and cap removed, thinking I’ve really got this process down now.

But wait!

The TSA agent took one look at me, noticed my lymphedema sleeve and immediately pulled me aside once again.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“A lymphedema sleeve,” I answered.

“What’s it for?”

“I need to wear it for medical reasons,” I explained.

Then she scurried off to seek another opinion from a fellow worker. Had she never seen a lymphedema sleeve before? This was not a small airport I might add.

“She’s wearing a bandage,” she told her fellow worker while covering her mouth so I wouldn’t hear, but of course I heard and so did everyone around me.

“No, it’s a lymphedema sleeve,” I explained once again.

“Can I touch it?” she asked next.

“Yes,” I responded wondering what would happen if I said no.

After she gingerly touched my sleeve (I must admit I felt like screaming out, pretending I was in pain from her touch), I was pulled aside once more to get my palms “read.”

I imagine this was because who knows what I could have had up my sleeve?

Pun intended.

The thing is though, they fit so darn tight there isn’t room for much of anything up a lymphedema sleeve.

Happily, on one connecting flight, we didn’t need to go through TSA at all due to the location of the gates. Loved that.

And of course, hubby went through each and every time with no questions asked.

Granted, I haven’t flown in a while and this was my first time flying wearing my sleeve.

But still, it seems like there should be more consistency in what’s allowed and what isn’t. It seems like TSA workers should be better trained to recognize such things as lymphedema sleeves. It seems as if a little more sensitivity should be part of their job training.

I couldn’t help but wonder how I would have felt one year ago traveling bald and being told I must remove my cap.

I realize this is all very trivial and my inconveniences were very minor. I understand about the necessity for safety and taking every precaution necessary.

But still…

Flying can be stressful these days for anyone.

Flying stand-by can be really stressful.

Flying stand-by as a cancer survivor can be really, really stressful.

Maybe next year we’ll drive again.

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Have you ever flown stand-by?

Do you have a TSA experience (good or bad) to share?

How do you feel about body scanners?








Catherine Wiggins

Saturday 15th of May 2021

Thank you for the information. I’m getting ready to fly commercial for the first time since my cancer diagnosis. I enjoyed the humor as you wrote about this incident.


Wednesday 19th of May 2021

Catherine, You're welcome. I'm glad you appreciated my humor. Not everyone does! Safe travels!

Sue Howton

Wednesday 4th of March 2020

Hi Nancy. I just flew with my left arm bandaged for my lymphodemia including cotton wrapping and ace bandaging that extend to the tips of my fingers (Metastatic in remission 6 months.) Now I'm swearing to never fly again! What a major embarrassment to me, the TSA staff and my fellow passengers. The clueless TSA agent couldn't have been older than 18, but she was certain I had something wrapped up underneath my three inches of bandage. She squeezed my arm to the point where it hurt and when I complained, she told me I had to unwrap it. When I refused, she reached out to start the process herself and I started to yell loudly and attract attention. Her supervisor told me I must unwrap it and after again explaining the reasons why I wouldn't be doing that, I asked to speak with the team lead. Once I explained, yet again, to the lead he turned to the two standing over me and suggested they return to their work stations. He apologized immediately, inquired about my flight departure and called for a trolley to take me to my gate. Throughout the situation, I worked really hard on keeping myself under control and not letting the situation get the better of me but I'd never say that was easy. While it has never been easy to deal with the cancer itself, it's most difficult to deal with the fact that medicare will not cover the cost of a lymphodemia sleeve (I have long arms & need a custom daytime sleeve). I've been seeing a physical therapist who is trained in lymphedema and she's shown me how to control my disease and sometimes wrapping my entire arm in six ace bandage wraps is the best prescription. I also try and keep a smile on my lips when confronted by well-meaning but clueless folks who shown wild concern for a complete stranger! People are sure strange, right? -#Joyfulgratefulcompassionateauthentic


Saturday 17th of March 2018

I always get full screening. I have my lymphedema sleeve and glove in my purse, as well as my bra and prosthetic. I try and wear a loose shirt, over a turtleneck or long sleeved T-shirt, but have been asked to remove the shirt - not even a hoodie. It seems hospitals and airports have a thing in common - the first thing you lose is your dignity.


Monday 19th of March 2018

Alison, Your last sentence says it all. Thank you.

Charnell freeman

Friday 16th of March 2018

I always get the full pat-down because of my lymphedema sleeve. They usually pat my entire upper body. Sometimes they do the entire body.

Cindy Humpartzian

Wednesday 14th of March 2018

While I don't have a problem with lymphedema (yet) I do wear a prosthetic breast and during one visit to my local shop the owner gave me a generic letter from the manufacturer (Amoena) for just this reason, indicating that I was wearing one. The intent is if you are chosen the scanner will show a big whole and create questions. I have flown a number of times within Canada as well as Europe (tho not into the US) with no problem. Hopefully if I do get selected for the scanner the letter will suffice in explanation. But I think I'm ballsy enough to whip the gelatinous boob out and in a loud voice say 'make sure you stay on top of your mammograms, ladies' Also, I travelled soon after chemo ended (18 months ago) wearing the wig. I sweated buckets going through security but had resolved myself to proudly taking off the wig and stating again, in a loud voice 'make sure you stay on top of your mammograms, ladies'. Having comments in my back pocket helped if I thought I would encounter a tough situation. This one has given me courage a number of times throughout this journey.


Thursday 15th of March 2018

Cindy, I like your strategy. Thank you for sharing it. And btw, I sweated buckets, too, thinking about removing my cap - as I shared about in that post. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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