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BREAST FRIENDS
VISIT TO CLINIC BECOMES AN ANNUAL PARTY

Even if the technician's voice is soothing, even if it's quick, even if it turns out OK, there are few moments more lonely than a mammogram's cold, metal squeeze.

But who would you want at your mammogram? Not your husband. Definitely not your kids. And although you still call her when you're sick, probably not your mother, either.

Facing her first lonely squeeze, Sally Swenholt did what she does best -- talked to her friends. Like Sally, they were nervous about yearly mammograms, anxious about aging and scary results. The six women were all around 40, the age to make it a yearly ritual, and it had been far too long since they'd had some girl time.

So, they decided to make it a party.

"I just didn't want to go by myself," says Sally, 45. "And I hadn't seen my friends. You don't mean to lose touch, but you do anyway. You can always go to your husband, but it's nice to have a good girlfriend."

Their yearly mammogram party started after years of camping trips and football games, facilitated by the friendship of their "rugrats." Their sons grew up together, facing acne and geometry together at Jesuit College Preparatory School.

"We hung around each other as much as our kids did," Sally says of her group of friends.

But they're busy women with jobs, hobbies and 19 kids among them. Getting their mammograms together was the first time in ages they could sit down to talk, with only the nurse's beckon to interrupt them.

It took some explaining. Sally collected full names, ages and basic insurance info. She asked for six consecutive appointments, surprising the staff at Presbyterian Hospital's Women's Diagnostic & Breast Center.

The friends called it Boobs 'n' Blazers day. Their appointments fell on the same day their sons first wore blazers to school as freshmen. They warned their sons not to forget their blazers and quietly used the school milestone as their own calendar marker: "Girls, don't forget our mammograms."

The party is a reminder as much as it is a tradition. With six friends looking forward to their day together, none will ever forget they need exams. This year, with their sons away at college, the time is filled with old pictures and plans for lunch together.

Other women in the waiting room stare.

When they realize that the peals of laughter from the party corner are not going away, they start to smile and chat, too.

"I know who that is -- you're the Jesuit ladies, right?" says Jacquelin Johnson-Sobers, a verification specialist at the center, rushing into the waiting room to see the group. "I look forward to this every year. It's Girls Day Out at the Doctor. It put the power back into this thing that's a drudge when you do it alone."

Sally's mother had breast cancer in the 1960s, but she told few people. She quietly received treatment, survived a mastectomy and wore a prosthetic.

"It was hush-hush," Sally says. "You couldn't talk about it. My mother was brave and my dad supported her all the way through.

"But I know I could call any one of my friends for any favor and they would know what I'm talking about."

A few times, the party's tests have turned up lumps or growths that need to be watched. Last year, one of the women had a lump removed, but it wasn't malignant.

Of course, everybody in the group heard about it.

Wendy Mason, helpline manager at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, says she's heard of best friends and couples going together, but never a party.

"You're taking instant support with you," says Mason, adding that most breast centers can probably accommodate groups with enough advance scheduling. "I'm sure the staff enjoys it -- a relaxed patient is much easier to interact with. For many women, getting a mammogram is very stressful."

The party changed the entire experience for Richardson resident Liz Conrad Goedecke. Now 53, she'd already started regular mammograms when Boobs 'n' Blazers day started.

"This is the ideal group medical experience -- I wouldn't advise a group colonoscopy," says Liz, who works in marketing. This is, after all, a party.

Mammogram party tips

Keep the group to a reasonable size -- too many people can mean too many scheduling conflicts, putting the mammograms off too long.

Find a center that can accommodate several consecutive appointments, and call far in advance.

Be prepared for a lot of questions the first time you schedule appointments -- full names, ages, insurance.

Try to keep the appointments about the same time every year; it will keep everyone on track and you'll be less likely to end up in insurance snafus.

Prepare to be supportive -- it's a lighthearted occasion, but the mood can change quickly if someone finds a problem.

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