Denise Albert, co-founder of media group The MOMS, is speaking out after what she calls a “horrific” pat-down by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents at Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday over medication related to her breast cancer treatment.
Albert tells PEOPLE that she was traveling for The Moms‘ Mamarazzi event promoting the animated film Sing when she was pulled aside by agents for a manual search. The in-depth search was initiated because of a medical cream she had packed in her carry-on luggage, Albert says.
Albert says the cream is not usually an issue and that she has been granted approval to carry it on other flights. She also noted that she made the agents aware of the medication and her medical port before the pat-down.
“I went through the scanner and they asked me to remove my shoes, even though I went through the scanner and I was TSA Precheck – which normally means you don’t have to take your shoes off,” she explains. “And I agreed to take my shoes off but I had to tell them I wasn’t going to stand on the floor without my shoes on because I have open sores and infections from my treatment, which is why I have the cream.”
According to Albert, TSA agents “aggressively” told her they needed to perform a full-body pat-down, using “as much pressure” as necessary.
She was forced to remove her wig for the first time ever in public (aside from two appearances at breast cancer events), and remained barefoot for at least 20 minutes during the ordeal.
“I got really upset, and I didn’t want them to touch my head. I didn’t want them to touch my wig,” she recalls. “I think anybody who has been through cancer treatment where you lose your hair – it just affects you so deeply and emotionally. As strong as I am everyday, it’s a very emotional experience… I didn’t want them touching my head. It caused me a lot of anxiety and I just started crying.”
She explains, “When I kept asking why they needed to do all of this, they kept saying because I wanted to bring medical cream on the plane.”
The entire incident was caught on camera, and only ended – amid threats by the agents to call the police – when two female supervisors arrived and moved the emotional Albert to a private room “for a regular soft pat down,” she says, noting that all of her bags were still searched.
“There’s always people that people say, ‘This is the TSA doing their job’ and I completely understand, obviously, and appreciate all the security that goes into everyday travel but this was out of line,” she asserts. “This was not in line with their protocol and their guidelines and I know that because I have been traveling with my medial condition and I did follow everything that I was supposed to do.”
WATCH: TV Host with Breast Cancer Hopes ‘Horrific’ TSA Body Search Won’t Happen to Anyone Else
Albert was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in late 2015, and began chemo in February and radiation in August after having a lumpectomy. She tells PEOPLE that her doctors currently assume she’s cancer-free. Albert is, however, positive for the HER2 gene, she says. “So if [the cancer] comes back it could come back anywhere,” she explains.
She’s still being treated with two immunotherapy drugs every three weeks, which will last until May.
“There’s still a lot of side effects but I consider myself lucky because I caught it early, and it’s treatable,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s not scary.”
According to the TSA website, those with TSA Precheck do not need to remove their shoes. Further, if a passenger has a medical condition, they also do not need to remove their shoes. Necessary medication and creams are allowed, but the passenger must inform the TSA officer before the screening begins and the product must pass through an X-ray scanner.
Albert says TSA’s Assistant Administrator for Civil Rights and Liberty, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement Kimberly Walton did call and apologize on behalf of the administration, and promised that all 3,000 agents at LAX would be retrained in handling patients with medical conditions immediately.
“They were very apologetic that I experienced this and they are not happy with the way that the agents handled the situation,” she shares.
While Albert has been “overwhelmed” by the response to her story, she says she’s “happy.”
“I’ve heard from thousands of people from around the country that have had circumstances – whether it be of their own medical condition or a medical condition of a child – and so many people have experienced this so obviously it’s not just me,” she tells PEOPLE, adding that after sharing the experience, “I’m really hopeful that this won’t happen to other people.”