Lead TSA Officer Donna Rice was in doubt, and just as she was trained to do, she used her network at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport (CHA). This time the issue wasn’t a passenger or a prohibited item.
“I mean, there's always doubt when you deal with cancer,” said Rice about her January 2022 triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma diagnosis – a fast-growing, aggressive breast cancer.
But just like on the checkpoint, Rice’s team had her back.
“We called it ‘girl power,’” Rice said of the unyielding emotional support she received from the entire CHA team. “The men reacted similar to the women. It was nice to have sisters and brothers who were supportive. We all still wear the pink ribbons.”
The ribbons remain a visible symbol of the tenacity with which Rice met her diagnosis and the collaborative and sustained help by her support circle, including her TSA colleagues.
“Because they’re my family, right?” Rice said.
She framed the sentence not so much as a question, but rather as a solid affirmation of the truth.
Rice initially did what anybody would do after hearing the diagnosis from her doctors; She cried. Tears clouded her conversations with her TSA family, so she texted the news to some folks.
“When Donna sent me a message that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, the news brought back memories and emotions from my experience with my mother who battled cancer for 10 years,” said CHA Supervisory TSA Officer Rhonda Spurgin. “I knew Donna’s journey was not going to be an easy one, but I knew she would not have to fight it alone.”
And she didn’t. Rice quickly found her resolve, stiffened her upper lip and leaned on her family when the going got tough.
“It's kind of a lonely battle,” Rice said of her chemotherapy, surgeries, radiation and immunotherapy. “I was alone when going through those steps and there were days when I was too tired to fight, but I knew without a doubt my TSA warriors were putting it out in the universe for me to get better.”
“I wanted to keep her laughing because laughing is great for the soul,” said Officer Crystal Stallion. “I sent her funny TikTok videos and called and texted her just to let her know that I was thinking about her. One of my texts read, ‘She’s Superwoman!!! You heard what I said!!!’ I made sure I let her know how strong she is and that I love her.”
Rice was stunned by the surprise girl power luncheon thrown for her by her TSA family before her surgery and overwhelmed by gifts including a customized blanket with each of their names written on it, words of encouragement and donations of leave.
“So much of it is fought here,” Rice said as she pointed to her head. “I couldn't have made it if I hadn't had their support. The first few weeks of recovery (after surgery) were harder than expected. It was the first time I had a visual of the damage the cancer had done to my body. It was emotionally tough to see the physical changes.
“I got texts every single day from my TSA family. It's almost like they had coordinated when to send me texts. Every day that I was out for almost seven weeks I got a text or a message, either funny or letting me know they were just thinking about me. Even my husband got texts because they knew he was having a hard time.”
These days, Rice can proudly wear another ribbon, the purple one signifying she is a cancer survivor. Statistics from the National Cancer Institute report that as of January 2022, it is estimated that there are 18.1 million cancer survivors in the United States. Rice is happy to join that number and to be back in uniform, having fun doing what she loves.
“For April Fool’s, I brought in a bunch of wigs from home that my aunt had given me, and I used when my hair fell out. When the supervisors came in for the briefing, we were all wearing blond wigs. It’s good to be normal again.”
June is National Cancer Survivor’s Month and like cancer survivors before her, Rice echoes a common refrain of solidarity when asked why she wanted to share such a personal story.
“I hope my story will help somebody else feel like they can survive cancer. If I can do it, or if I can help someone else get through it, then you can as well. No one battles cancer alone.”
Editor’s Note: Tuesday, Lead TSA Officer Rice successfully completed phase 2 surgery, her final procedure for reconstruction and port removal. She’s assured her TSA family will be sending her good and positive thoughts during her month-long recovery.
By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs