Festive Mammogram Parties Deserve a Dose of Caution

Wine, cheese and a mammogram. Worst party ever or a lifesaving idea?

"Mamm" parties are intended to make having a mammogram fun. Most women don't exactly view the test as a whimsical experience so offering a few refreshments and perhaps a spa treatment or two helps lighten the mood and makes the breast exam seem less intimidating.

Mindy Kiser recently attended a mamm party thrown by her employer, InTrust Bank of Wichita, Kan. When she received the invitation for the medical test soirée a few weeks ago, she immediately RSVP'd "yes" because she had just turned 40 and was feeling concerned about her family history of breast cancer.

"What a great way to take the preconceived notion that a mammogram is a horrible, uncomfortable experience and make it into lovely evening," she said.

The InTrust event was women-only and held at the medical imaging clinic of a local hospital. Kiser said some light hors d'oeuvres and a killer chocolate fondue were served while she and 15 or so of her best bosom buddies were treated to complimentary paraffin-wax hand treatments, back rubs and beauty consultations. By the time her name was called for testing, she was so mellow, submitting to a mammogram just didn't seem like that big a deal.

"It turned into a nice, relaxing time hanging out with friends and co-workers," she said.

Mamm parties aren't usually run by a physician or nurse but a trained technician who administers the test exactly the way it's typically done, using the exact same equipment. You don't learn your results instantly but Kiser said she received hers within a few days and the party organizer also filled out the necessary insurance paperwork for her and sent all of her information on to her doctor.

Sounds easy and convenient but, as Dr. Julie Silver, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and author of " Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Healing for Your Breast Cancer Journey," pointed out, there are pros and cons to attending such festivities.

"It may be a good way to improve compliance and make having a mammogram more enjoyable but not everyone should be invited," she said. "Not every woman needs a mammogram and they should only be done based on the appropriate guidelines."

There is some disagreement among expert groups on when the typical woman should begin having mammograms and how often they should have them.

The American Cancer Society, as well as many physicians, health insurers and policymakers, recommends that all healthy women begin yearly mammogram testing at age 40. But the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended last year that women should begin mammogram testing at age 50 and only schedule them every two years until about age 74.

The Task Force made its recommendation based on the studies that showed giving mammograms to women every other year from ages 50 to 69 reduces breast cancer deaths by 16.5 percent over a lifetime. If screening is started at age 40 and continued every other year, there's a 19.5 percent lifetime reduction in deaths from breast cancer. That 3 percent difference translates roughly to saving one woman's life for every 1,000 who are screened but also results in hundreds of false positive tests and dozens of unnecessary procedures.

A study performed last year by the University of California at San Francisco found that about half of women who submit to a decade of annual mammograms will be given the harrowing news that their tests are positive when they are actually cancer-free. The women who receive false-positive results will then be subjected to further testing. One in 12 of them will undergo invasive biopsy surgery that carries the risk of complication from anesthesia, scarring and infection.

Rather than relying on a party planner - or even general guidelines - author Silver said the wisest approach a woman can take to mammogram testing is having a discussion with her doctor to devise an exam schedule that makes the most sense for her age group and personal history. Doctors usually recommend that women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer be tested at an earlier age and more frequently than average.

Party-goer Kiser said she understands the risk associated with having mammograms early and often but she has weighed them and still planned to attend her company's annual mamm party from now on.

"I've heard too many stories about women getting their mammograms at an earlier age and discovering things they might not have otherwise so I think it's best to err on the side of caution," she said.

And, she added, "I may as well have some fun while I'm being proactive."