TSA Training and Development Executive Director Tina Cariola is a list maker. Seeing the tasks written on a page gives her a sense of order, focus and control over her responsibilities, and crossing off completed items creates satisfaction and accomplishment.
But when a stage one breast cancer diagnosis forced its way to the top of her customarily routine list, Cariola was in uncharted territory.
“There’s an unknown piece, right? I’ve never gone through this,” Cariola remembered thinking. “It feels weird talking about this now because I don’t like focusing on myself, but if my experience can help anyone else, then I want to tell my story.”
Once her diagnosis was known, Cariola’s friends weren’t sure how to interact with her.
“People with cancer are real people,” said Cariola, who learned the direct approach was best. “Just ask how you can help or say, ‘what can I do for you today?’ It could be that you need to vent or maybe you’d appreciate some soup.”
Her journey is similar to others who have faced breast cancer, a fact that doesn’t escape Cariola, who didn’t feel particularly strong when first hearing she had cancer.
“The first time I called the doctor and heard the operator answer with, ‘Hello, Virginia Cancer Specialists,’ I broke down,” said Cariola.
An annual mammogram detected the cancer in January 2021. Surgery later that month was followed by eight rounds of chemo until June. Afterwards three additional preventative surgeries all cropped up on her list, along with her usual work responsibilities. One by one she victoriously scratched them off, and in so doing, found her inner strength.
“I was teleworking (because of the pandemic) during the majority of the treatment, so people I wasn’t closely working with didn’t necessarily know I was undergoing cancer treatment,” recalled Cariola. “On one hand, it almost felt like I wasn’t missing out on too much of the ‘real world’ as everyone was in a COVID bubble.”
On a particularly hot July day, a bold move during a video conference spoke volumes about Cariola’s growing confidence in herself and her fight against cancer. She turned on her camera, and after a warning to her colleagues, she took off her hat, revealing her newly bald head. After a brief moment to get used to the new look, it was business as usual.
On the other hand, one COVID-19 isolation downside was acutely felt by Cariola while she was hospitalized and during chemo sessions.
“I wasn’t allowed to bring anyone to my chemo treatments — some of which lasted up to 6 hours — or be with me too much in the hospital either before or after surgeries,” said Cariola. “This was another reason I needed to find my own mantras and support mechanisms to help get me through it by myself as I didn’t always have my personal network with me.”
Along with mindfulness aided by the ancient Japanese practice of reiki, Cariola found her mental muse while peddling on a Peloton bike with her favorite virtual instructor, Christine D’Ercole.
“Throughout chemo and as soon as I could after my surgeries, I continued doing a lot of Peloton rides. Exercise helps the chemo move through the body, and I wanted to stay as active as possible,” explained Cariola. “Christine is big on positive self-talk, affirmations and not being too hard on yourself. One of her mottos is ‘I am, I can, I will, I do,’ and you can finish those sentences with different endings throughout your life depending on what you may be dealing with. I used that framework to develop a mantra that I used throughout my treatment, and I’ve since changed the mantra to help me deal with the resulting anxiety post-treatment.”
Now one year from her active treatment, Cariola made a pilgrimage of sorts to New York City last month.
“I went to do a live ride in studio with Christine for my 900th ride,” a smiling Cariola said. “She gave me a shout out for my 900 Peloton rides, recognized me as a breast cancer survivor, and then commented that I was a ‘thriver’ as that word is in my leaderboard name.”
Cariola’s prospering professionally as well, becoming the Executive Director of the Training Centers Division in Training and Development at the end of 2021. She oversees TSA Academy East in Glynco, Georgia; TSA Academy West in Las Vegas; the TSA Training Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey; and the Canine Training Center in San Antonio.
A humble list maker, Cariola insists crossing off cancer wasn’t superhuman but admits it’s changed her.
“What I did is what anyone would do in this situation,” said Cariola. “I’m thankful I had such a strong network to rely on. I came out stronger, more aware and hopefully, a little bit more resilient. Things don’t faze me as much now.”
An advocate for mammograms and monthly self-exams, Cariola urges people — especially now during Breast Cancer Awareness Month — to put these checks at the top of their lists.
“TSA has 60,000 employees and approximately half of them are women,” said Cariola. “One in eight women gets breast cancer. That’s almost 4,000 of our employees, who at some point could be impacted statistically speaking. I want to motivate those 4,000 people so they can catch it as early as possible and have a better chance of survival.”
By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs