Mammograms can be time-consuming, uncomfortable and difficult to schedule.
But one hospital in Erie, Pa., is trying to change all that by making a mammogram appointment a fun event.
The Breast Health Center at Hamot Medical Center is holding a MammoMarathon starting Friday morning. The center will perform mammograms around the clock for 24 hours.
"Mammograms are the best screening tool that we have for breast cancer," says Dr. Carol Ann Lyons, a radiologist at Hamot. "And we're trying to open that tool up to more women who are either too busy for normal appointment hours or scared to come alone."
The center is encouraging women to "bring a buddy" and enjoy the perks -- from massages to manicures, food and prizes -- that will accompany their 24-hour marathon of mammograms. Some women even plan to join in the event even if they are not having a mammogram.
"This is going to be a night out for me," says Renee Cunningham, 55, from Westfield, N.Y., who is signed up to receive a mammogram at 12:20 a.m.
Cunningham says that although she usually doesn't look forward to her biannual mammograms, this one will be different.
"There are going to be a lot of fun activities to do there, and it makes me feel better about going," she says.
Doctors and hospitals have reason to seek new encouragement for women who need mammograms. According to a study published in May of this year in the journal Cancer, fewer women than ever are getting annual mammograms.
Between 1987 and 2000, the percentage of American women age 40 and older who were getting regular mammograms grew steadily. This increase is partially credited for lowering the death rate from breast cancer. Since 2000, a series of studies has shown mammogram rates first leveling off and then declining.
Doctors at Hamot recognized that it was difficult for some of their patients to make and keep appointments for mammograms.
"It's hard to get an appointment, and so many women work late shifts," says Linda Mangold, the assistant manager of regional imaging services at the medical center, who originally came up with the idea.
"Now we're trying to tell women, 'There are no more excuses, girls!' This is a warmer, more comfy mammogram," says Mangold.
She adds that nearly all the 100 slots for mammograms have been filled, even those at odd hours of the night. The medical center is also providing participants with padded cushions to ease the discomfort of the mammography machine.
Other medical centers have employed creative methods to promote breast health. Johns Hopkins started the Breastival for college-age women in 2001. The events, held on college campuses, include different booths where women -- and men -- can learn about breast health.
"We've held over 130 of these breastivals nationally, and four internationally," says Lillie Shockney, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center. "They help to reduce fear, dispel the myths and instill the facts of breast health to young women."
Though the focus is mammograms and not breast health, the doctors at Hamot have the same idea -- to integrate fun and breast cancer awareness.
"We want to get the message out about how important mammograms are," says Hamot radiologist Lyons. "Breast cancer should not be feared. We have made great strides in both diagnosing and treating it, and there has been a 20 percent reduction in breast cancer mortality in the past decade."
The center hopes that other medical facilities will take the opportunity to open more hours and appoints for mammograms. Says Mangold, "If every place would open up for 24 hours, even once a year, that would be so great for so many women."
Cunningham says her advice to women is to be vigilant.
"Mammograms are something you just have to do," she says. "You have to do it for your own sake and for your family -- for longevity."