Two-time breast cancer survivor Debbie Smiertelny was first diagnosed with the disease in the 1980s, at the age of 23. As a new wife and mother to two young children, her prognosis terrified her.
Bravely, she faced a mastectomy and chemotherapy, emerging victorious into remission. When the cancer returned 20 years later, she was no less terrified, but she and her doctor had caught it early enough that she beat it once again.
"Early detection saved my life twice," Smiertelny said to those taking part in La Porte Hospital’s Blow Away Breast Cancer ceremony Thursday morning. It is the second annual event at the hospital.
"One of the biggest reasons we hold this ceremony is to remind women of the importance of early detection and getting their annual screening mammogram. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the more likely it is to be cured," said Kelly Credit, Regional Director of Marketing and Communications for La Porte Hospital.
During the ceremony, La Porte Hospital CEO Ashley Dickinson read a proclamation declaring the hospital’s dedication to breast cancer education, treatment, and support, as a bright pink Breast Cancer Awareness Month flag rose behind her.
"It's all about creating awareness and honoring survivors and those currently battling breast cancer," Dickinson said. "Breast cancer is one of those diseases that touches everyone. I think it's very important that we recognize the community and our patients in this way."
She then followed participants to the hospital's front garden, where they planted bright pink pinwheels to symbolize the blowing away of breast cancer through regular annual screening and monthly self-examinations.
While most insurance policies now cover annual breast screening mammograms for women, exam costs and follow up treatment can still be a barrier for many. For this reason, the Healthcare Foundation of La Porte (HFL) offers a voucher program for women in LaPorte County struggling to afford screenings.
HFL’s program covers both screening and diagnostic mammography services for uninsured or underinsured county residents who are at least 40 years of age or meet American Cancer Society High-Risk criteria.
Dr. Krishna Pillai, medical director of Women's Imaging at La Porte Hospital, spoke about the vital role education and annual screening mammograms play in the early detection and successful treatment of breast cancer.
"Raising awareness is fantastic because some people don't know about screening mammography, some people do know but may have misconceptions, and some people love to talk about it. Events like Blow Away Breast Cancer create a forum and opportunity for all those people to come together," Dr. Pillai said.
Today, as the Clinical Research Coordinator of Oncology Services for La Porte Hospital, Smiertelny definitely falls into the latter category. She splits her time between community outreach and education and helping cancer patients process their diagnosis and treatments.
She understands well how much impact sharing her experience can have on those facing the same battles she has now won twice.
"There's one common thread here— if you haven't gone through it, you can't speak to it," Smiertelny said. "If at the end of the day I've seen one woman's eyes light up when I tell her that I've survived cancer twice and she understands she can do this, it makes everything worthwhile."
For complete information about the HFL voucher program visit the foundation’s website at https://hflaporte.org/mammogram-program/, or call (219) 326-2471.
If you or someone you know in LaPorte County is in need of a screening mammogram, contact La Porte Hospital at (219) 326-2444 to schedule an appointment, or visit their website: https://www.laportehealth.com/womens-health.