By Mary Owen, Tribune reporter
October 19, 2011
Judy Wiersema knew she was four years overdue for her mammogram, but she always found an excuse to postpone.
She was able to overcome her fear and procrastination, however, when she read about a Joliet hospital hosting a mammogram party. Women waiting to be screened could also get a free massage and a manicure.
"I can't afford a manicure or a massage," said Wiersema, 72, of Channahon, who relies on a monthly Social Security stipend. "When this came up, I said, 'Whoa, this is fabulous.'"
Provena St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet has sponsored six mammogram parties in the last year as part of its effort to create a less stressful environment and encourage women to get the screening.
Anne Marie Murphy, executive director of the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force, said mammogram parties are just one way to draw women in. In poorer neighborhoods, for example, medical facilities may provide transportation to a screening.
"There are a lot of reasons why women are not going," Murphy said. "But early detection works and it saves lives."
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, when women are inundated with everything from pink bagels to pink gardening tools. But Murphy emphasizes that research has shown the No. 1 impetus for women to get screened is the advice of their doctor.
At the Provena St. Joseph parties, groups of eight women — sometimes friends — share not only pink treats, pink lemonade and the occasional glass of white wine, but also their fears and stories.
"I just loved it. The ladies were so much fun," said Wiersema, who had three hip surgeries in the last three years and worried about discovering another ailment.
The laid-back atmosphere at the parties is a stark contrast to the typical tense vibe, where women waiting for mammograms silently flip through magazines, said Dr. Mickey Jester, a Provena radiologist in charge of breast cancer imaging.
"(The parties) create a totally different environment," Jester said. "Going in to get your mammogram performed while this is all going on allows a woman to take a deep breath and relax and realize that other women are going through the same thing."
Experts say the number of mammogram screenings has declined in the last few years due largely to the economic downturn and to a 2009 recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that women don't need to be screened as often.
The decline has worried many breast cancer awareness advocates, who stand by the American Cancer Society's recommendation that women over age 40 should be screened annually.
The Provena medical staff started the mammogram parties after hearing about them being held at their sister hospital in Kankakee. The women are given their results in the days after the party to maintain privacy.
Dorothy Zupancic, 66, of Joliet, was diagnosed with breast cancer after attending a mammogram party in July. After some follow-up exams, she is preparing to start chemotherapy.
"I think some women are afraid," Zupancic said of the test. "They say it's painful, but it's not painful. They do squish you, but you're done lickety-split. You hold your breath and it's over."
Dr. Carol Ferrans has researched cultural beliefs related to why women in the Chicago area don't get screened. She says the No. 1 reason is fear.
"That was across the board," said Ferrans, who works with the University of Illinois at Chicago's Center of Excellence in Eliminating Disparities. "It's fear of being told you're going to have cancer. It's as if going to be tested for cancer is the same as being told you have cancer."
Experts say early detection is key, but women fear not only the cost of getting the screening (if they are uninsured or their insurance doesn't cover the expense), but also the treatment if they are diagnosed.
The Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program is a government-funded effort that provides free screenings for women, but the program often runs out of money and patients are put on waiting lists, said Ferrans.
In her survey of Chicago-area women, Ferrans also found that women believe that a lump needs to hurt or be large to be cancerous, which is not true. Often, they will wait for it to grow or become painful, she said.
Several women also said they don't believe cancer can be treated and don't follow up on treatment.
For more information about mammogram parties at Provena St. Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, contact Sandy Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-725-7133, ext. 3234.
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