A glass of wine, a few hors d'oeuvres, a couple of chocolate-dipped strawberries -- oh, and maybe one of those cheesecake thingies -- and pretty soon you're ready to have a mammogram.
That's the goal of radiologists at St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Shakopee, who hosted what was believed to have been the first mammogram party in Minnesota last Thursday evening. Judging from the 11 women who spilled out of a limo to the beat of "Funkytown" and boogied through the hospital doors, the strategy worked.
Sharon White, 45, of Inver Grove Heights had carried her appointment reminder around for four years, frequently remembering that she'd forgotten, yet never acting on it. But when her friend, Theresa Johnson of Lakeville, e-mailed that she was organizing a mammogram party, White replied within five minutes.
Michelle Brennan, 52, of Lakeville, had been diligent about her annual exams, yet inexplicably had let her last one go unscheduled. "So this was fate that Theresa did this."
Kelly Austin was the mammo virgin in the bunch. At 38, she's shy of the recommended age of 40 for such exams to begin, although some doctors recommend that women start as early as 35, especially if there's a family history of breast cancer.
Without a party, "I never would have done this," Austin said. "I even tried to get out of it. 'You old ladies go have fun.' But they wouldn't let me." As it was, she drifted asleep while getting a massage.
Have we mentioned the manicures?
St. Francis got the idea to offer mammo parties when Jimly Harris, manager of diagnostic services, heard of a similar program in Florida. The medical center is booking future parties, which it expects will occur on a monthly basis. Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths among U.S. women, yet fewer women are getting mammograms, said Mary Hestness, medical director of the radiology department.
According to a study by the National Cancer Institute last year, the percentage of U.S. women getting mammograms after age 40 had grown steadily for more than a decade before leveling off in 2000. By 2005, the rate had dropped to 66 percent, down from 70 percent in 2000.
The decline concerns cancer researchers, who say regular mammograms remain the best tool for catching breast cancer in its earlier, more treatable stages.
Some experts suggest that the cost of mammograms might be a factor, especially as access to insurance declines, but noneconomic factors also play a role.
"There's a fear of the unknown," Hestness said. "Just like any other test, some people are afraid of the results. And time is a big issue for many women, so here's a way they can get an exam and spend time with their friends."
Fun instead of fear
The parties are a joint effort of St. Francis and several area businesses that donate their services. Two salon technicians from Allure Hair Salon in Shakopee wielded pink emery boards and painted nails, while another gave makeup consultations. ("Oprah says it's all about the eyebrows," said partygoer Nancy Peck of Eagan.) Owner Bonnie Menden said she was intrigued with the idea of mammo parties and was happy to donate her time. "It's such a good cause," she said, but also a good reminder of her own medical procrastination. "I'll have to have my own party."
Organizer Johnson, who works in community relations at St. Francis, said that getting her friends to respond "was easier than a Tupperware party. And we had a cheer in the limo that everyone has a good result." Sonic Limousine Service of Savage donated its service for this inaugural event but will offer rides at a discount for future parties, Harris said.
Radiologist Jen Kroska took off her feather boa, but left on her tiara as she got to work. "You can bring your wine," she said, ushering White into the exam room. With a special ease that enables her to stand alongside strangers and manipulate what is always called "breast tissue," Kroska was friendly and efficient. Each woman's results should be available within 10 days, she said.
White doesn't know why she let her mammograms lapse. It wasn't from fear. "My sister says they hurt, but I tell her having a baby hurts. A mammogram is just uncomfortable."
The whole procedure was over within minutes, leaving White time enough to squeeze (you know we had to get that word in somewhere) in a massage, some fresh makeup and some munchies. Peck was videotaping the festivities, eager to share the experience with her sister, who survived breast cancer, and her three young daughters, for whom a mammogram is a mysterious ritual.
"I want them to not be fearful of it," she said. "We have these wonderful tools now, so you do what you have to do. And the idea of putting fun and mammogram in the same sentence -- it's unheard of. But the fun takes away the fear."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185