Traveling cancer patients get extra assistance during screenings: Know your options

Security checkpoint at the airport
Recognizing how difficult traveling can be for cancer patients, the federal government has developed a program to reduce the stress during airport security screenings.

Spring break season is here, and for millions of travelers leaving town to enjoy some rest and relaxation, one stop can put a damper on the excitement: airport security. Standing in long lines, removing shoes and belts, getting through body imaging, metal detectors, and in some cases, a pat-down, is an inconvenience for most fliers. But for many cancer patients, security screenings present both physical and emotional challenges. Having an ostomy bag touched by security personnel or being asked to lift clothing in a crowded airport to expose ports, drains or bandages may prove embarrassing for some, traumatic for others. That’s why it’s important to know that help is available to make the screening process easier and less stressful, for cancer patients and their caregivers.

Recognizing the toll the process can take on passengers with medical conditions and disabilities, the federal government’s Transportation Security Administration launched the TSA Cares program, complete with a toll-free helpline, 877-787-2227. Travelers can call the number to ask about alternative screening options for specific conditions, or to arrange for a trained passenger support specialist to help them through the security process.

TSA program tips

TSA offers these tips to help make the program work smoothly:

  • Be specific about the type of assistance you need.
  • Call 72 hours before your scheduled flight.
  • Know the helpline’s hours of operation. The line is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends and holidays.
  • Take advantage of TSA Cares’  social media platforms. Live assistance is available 365 days a year via Twitter using the handle, @AskTSA—weekdays from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and from 9 a.m.to 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Travelers may also send questions to TSA via Facebook Messenger on the agency’s Facebook page.
  • Notify TSA if a private screening was not made available to you, since all airports should have that capability.

Those who didn’t call ahead, and who don’t want to discuss their medical condition in front of strangers, have another option: TSA notification cards. A traveler’s medical condition is written on the card and handed to the TSA officer. The card is designed as a way to inconspicuously alert TSA personnel of the traveler’s medical condition, allowing for the screening to take place in private. The card does not exempt anyone from being screened, and it won’t necessarily expedite the screening process, but it offers a discreet, respectful way to notify officers at the checkpoint that additional accommodations are needed.

Because the TSA Cares program has proven to be a valuable resource for cancer patients, but knowing that downloading even one more form can prove taxing to patients who are already juggling so much, Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) hospitals provide laminated notification cards to patients who need one. “We’ve been doing it for three years,” says Jenny Dodd, manager of travel logistics at our hospital near Chicago. “Rather than asking our patients to navigate the TSA site and print it out, we do it for them.”

Additional TSA tips

TSA offers these additional tips for cancer patients:

  • Before the screening process begins, let a TSA officer know if you have an external medical device, such as a port, a feeding tube, an insulin pump or an ostomy bag, and where it’s located. You may provide the officer with the TSA notification card, or other medical documentation if you prefer.
  • TSA has standardized screening procedures for various medical conditions and disabilities, including allowing a passenger with an ostomy bag to perform his or her own pat-down. The passenger’s hands would then be tested for traces of explosives. The passenger may still be required to undergo a standard pat-down on areas of the body that are not connected to the ostomy bag. TSA provides information specific to various situations.
  • If you want the companion or caregiver traveling with you to remain with you during the screening, let the TSA officer know. TSA gives you the right to have your travel companion witness your screening.
  • Breast prostheses and mastectomy bras are considered medically necessary and may be worn during screening. Patients will not be asked to remove them.