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Free mammogram saves Libby woman

| June 7, 2006 12:00 AM

By GWEN ALBERS Western News Reporter

A program that provides free mammograms prompted Helen Clark to get one.

That's also how Clark caught her breast cancer early enough to beat it.

"If I hadn't gotten it (the mammogram), who knows what may have happened," the 48-year-old said. "Cancer runs rampant in my family. My mother had it, and my grandmother, dad and great-grandmother died from it."

St. John's Lutheran Hospital for a second year has received a grant that provides the free mammograms. The $25,918 grant will serve 200 underinsured and uninsured women who meet income guidelines. Funding also will cover the co-payment for those with insurance, assuming income guidelines are met.

It's recommended that once women turn 35, they get a mammogram every other year, said Laura Sedler, a social worker for St. John's Lutheran Hospital. When they get into their 40s and 50s, it should be done every year.

"I kept running into women who weren't getting mammograms because they lost their insurance," Sedler said

She applied to the Montana affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, one of more than 100 affiliates nationwide dedicated to putting an end to breast cancer. In addition to funding research, the foundation supports education, screening and treatment projects in communities around the world and delivers the life-saving message of early detection to millions of women and men.

For 2005, St. John's received $41,921 from the foundation for 250 mammograms; 126 women took advantage of the program. For 30 percent, it was their first mammogram, Sedler said.

"Preventive health is the best habit you can have," she said.

"If you haven't had a mammogram, we encourage them as part of our wellness program," added KC Hoyer, marketing manager for St. John's.

Those wanting to take advantage of the free service should start by consulting their doctor, who must refer them after a breast exam.

The Early Mammogram Access Program qualifies women from a family of one whose maximum income is $24,500 annually; family of two, $33,000; three, $41,500; four, $50,000; five, $58,500 and six, $67,000.

If a mammogram points to the need for a biopsy or ultrasound, the hospital can link patients with other programs for financial help.

That's how Clark, who has no health insurance, paid for medical procedures that followed her diagnosis.

"When I saw the bills coming in, I said, 'thank goodness for the program,'" she said.

Employed at Hall's Jewelry on Mineral Avenue, Clark started getting mammograms at age 42. She skipped 2004. When she had the grant-funded test in the fall of 2005, a mass was discovered in her breast.

She felt no symptoms.

"If you have it, some people don't know," Clark said. "I didn't feel a lump."

When Sedler learned Clark needed two surgeries and seven weeks of radiation, Sedler helped get the money to cover the costs.

Wings Regional Cancer Support, which provides cancer patients and families with money for things not covered by insurance, like fuel, food and lodging, also helped Clark.

"As far as I know, I'm clear of cancer," she said.

For more information, call Sedler at 293-0183.