Crown Point woman survives cancer with the help of the Bears - October 26, 2018

Courtesy of the Times of Northwest Indiana

Written by Giles Bruce

Shelly Recktenwall had just watched her friend die.

The friend had felt a lump in her breast but couldn’t afford a mammogram.

By the time the woman was diagnosed, it was too late. She died not long after.

Later, Recktenwall started noticing a mass in her own breast. But the Crown Point woman had no health insurance, and didn’t make a ton of money as a preschool special needs instructor.

Luckily her daughter-in-law learned about a program at Methodist Hospitals that offers free mammograms, courtesy of Bears Care, the charitable arm of the Chicago Bears. In January 2014, Recktenwall called and found out she met the financial assistance guidelines.

“Sure enough I had breast cancer,” she said.

It was stage 2, meaning it had been caught early. Recktenwall was treated with surgery followed by two kinds of chemotherapy and 36 rounds of radiation.

She is grateful for the No Woman Left Behind program and spreads the word about it to everyone she can. She attends events at Methodist Hospitals to raise awareness.

“There are a lot of people in this community who put off mammograms because they don’t have the money,” she said.

Methodist Hospitals has offered the free screenings since 2013, when it first got a grant from Bears Care, for $25,000. The hospital system has received $20,000 a year from the charity each year since then.

The program has served 500 women, diagnosing 19 of them with cancer. No Woman Left Behind offers everything before treatment — 3-D or traditional mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs and biopsies — for free.

Jennifer Sanders, manager of the Northwest Indiana Breast Cancer Center at Methodist Hospitals Southlake campus in Merrillville, said she applied for the grant after encountering many women with late-stage breast cancer who had put off their mammograms.

“I’ve heard so many times, ‘I didn’t have the funds for it,'” Sanders said.

Breast cancer, which affects 1 in 8 women, is largely treatable when caught early, Sanders noted.

“I’m just so glad Shelly was able to find our information and have her life saved,” Sanders said.

In Northwest Indiana, the mammography screening rate for women is 61 percent in Lake County, 58 percent in Porter County and 64 percent in LaPorte County, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings. The state average is 62 percent.

Four years after her cancer scare, Recktenwall is in good health. The 61-year-old has changed her eating routine to prevent the disease from returning: She avoids processed food, sugar, red meat, pork and most dairy products, instead eating organic chicken, fish, fruits and vegetables, as well as hormone-free cheese and butter, and drinking almond milk. She takes a pill that blocks the effects of estrogen.

“I just had this stubborn attitude,” she said. “This is not going to be my demise. It’s not happening.”

She stopped teaching because, with her weakened immune system, the preschoolers would often get her sick. So she sells cosmetics for Mary Kay. She also has a big family: six kids and 14 grandchildren.

“They always say cancer is a journey,” she said. “It’s not a journey. A journey is going from place to place. It’s an adventure. You do not know where you’re going. You do not know where you’re headed. It’s dangerous and exciting at the same time.”