Breast Cancer and Airport Security Screenings

You are Entitled to Privacy During Airport Security Screenings

woman at airport security wondering about breast cancer implants
What should you know about airport screening with breast cancer?. Getty Images

If your doctor clears you to travel during or after breast cancer treatment, what do you need to know about airport security and screening (or cruise ship screening)? If you have had surgery without reconstructive surgery, or if you have had your final reconstruction, you probably don't need to worry. But if you wear a prosthesis, have a chemotherapy port, carry syringes such as for Neulasta or Neupogen, or have tissue expanders? What about the 3-1-1 role for liquids if your breast prosthesis is a gel or if your liquid medications are over 3 ounces?

Some women also have difficulty raising their arms over their head (for the security theater scanner) after breast cancer surgery. Let's take a look at what you need to know, and what accommodations are available, before you take off with breast cancer.

Chemotherapy Ports and Airport Screening

If you have a chemotherapy port, it is often times surgically implanted under your skin in the chest area. Your port may or may not set off the metal detector, but if it does, you can plan ahead in a few ways:

  • Carry an identification card for your device, which you can show to security staff, as needed.
  • Get a note from your physician, on his or her letterhead if you don’t have the ID card for your port. Your physician needs to describe the location, type and purpose of your port.

Tissue Expanders and Airport Screening

If you are having breast reconstruction using a breast implant(s) you will have a tissue expander in place, and there may be a magnet in your expander. The purpose of the magnet is to guide your plastic surgeon in finding the valve where she will insert saline into the expander.

A metal detector wand, which is a hand-held device, usually will find a magnet. Be sure to get a note from your surgeon or an I.D.card that identifies where the magnet is, and why you have it in you. Be prepared to share I.D. information with security personnel when asked to do so.

Treatment Syringes

Medicine you take by injection must go through the X-ray machines. You will need to carry a letter from your doctor, on his or her letterhead, identifying why you need this medicine. The letter needs to describe the medication in detail. It is important to carry a complete and up-to-date list of all your medications that you can show to security personnel.

Traveling With Breast Cancer

Many people have traveled by air or cruise ship after surgery for breast cancer. Some, if they have had problems, asked to speak privately with security personnel who are knowledgeable about breast prostheses.

Some women have not been as fortunate. There have been stories in the news about women who have had negative experiences after searches related to wearing a breast prosthesis.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is well aware of this bad press, and wants passengers who are breast cancer survivors to know that during security screening, they have the option of undergoing screening by use of advanced imaging technology or a pat-down. Metal detectors are still in use in all airports.

Keep Important Medications and Syringes in Your Carry-On

You might think for a moment that checking your syringes or medications would alleviate the chance for a problem during security screening. But your luggage may not arrive. It's recommended that medications and syringes for needed medications always be carried in your purse and/or carry-on to prevent problems if your luggage doesn't arrive when you do.

Difficulty Lifting Your Arms

Some airport security areas randomly send people through areas that are either "walk through," or instead, the "security theaters" (millimeter-wave detection) where you raise your arms over your head. After a mastectomy, especially with node dissection, this may be difficult. If you are coping with a frozen shoulder or difficulty raising your arms, talk to the TSA personnel who can direct you to a walk-through metal detector instead.

During Your Security Screening

Here are some tips that are helpful as you go through your security screening with breast cancer:

  • If you require additional screening, you may ask that the pat-down take place in a private area.
  • You are entitled to have a companion present to witness the pat-down in a private screening area.
  • If standing is difficult, you may ask to be seated during the pat-down procedure.
  • Ask TSA security to handle additional screenings as privately as possible.
  • Do not agree, if asked, to lift or remove clothing to show your prosthesis, and do not  remove your prosthesis.
  • If you have your prosthesis or mastectomy bra in your suitcase, it will be allowed through the checkpoint after it is screened. Your prosthesis or bra does not fall under the 3-1-1 rules for liquids, gels, and aerosols. It is considered a medical necessity. You are also entitled to having your bag be screened in a private setting.

Tips To Make Your Screening

In addition to understanding your rights, and what options are available for screening, a few tips may streamline your security check and help you get on your way.

  • If you wear a breast prosthesis, inform the security officer. If you are more comfortable handing the officer a card identifying you as a breast cancer survivor, this is also acceptable. The TSA has a template you can use for special procedures with medical conditions. Note: The TSA notification card will not take the place of a required screening. It is designed  to protect passengers’ privacy and is a more discrete way of communicating with TSA personnel
  • If you think you will have a difficult time undergoing the screening process, feel free to get in touch with the Customer Support and Quality Improvement Manager and ask their help. There is usually one at every airport.
  • Should the officer screening you fail to respond to your questions, or if you are upset with the way the screening process is being conducted, request to speak with a supervisor.

Bottom Line on Airport Security Screening With Breast Cancer

Despite some bad press in the past, the TSA has several ways of accommodating the unique concerns of those going through breast cancer treatment. Planning ahead by carrying a card or doctors note describing a port or expander can be very helpful. If you have difficulty raising arms, you can request a walk-through metal detector or pat down. In addition, the 3-1-1 rule doesn't pertain to items that are considered medically necessary, such as medications or prostheses.

Traveling after a diagnosis of breast cancer is one way in which you can get out in the world and feel like you are living again. Don't let the procedures involved in airport screening deter you from a well-deserved trip.

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