Giant Colon Goes on Tour to Promote Cancer Awareness

Giant Colon Goes on Tour to Promote Cancer Awareness

By Betsy McKay

Hampton, Ga.

Persuading people to get a colonoscopy shouldn’t be this hard.

Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. for men and women combined, yet one in three adults isn’t getting tested as recommended, health officials say. Many are afraid or grossed out by the procedures.

To overcome their resistance, health officials and educators now are resorting to extreme measures, displaying a large inflatable replica of a human colon at health fairs, festivals and other events.

Letitia Price had a gut feeling when she arranged for an inflatable colon to appear at a cancer fundraising relay one Friday evening in an Atlanta suburb. From the outside, the 20-foot-long inflatable tunnel looked like a children’s bouncy house. Inside, the pink vinyl walls were streaked with red arteries and dotted with bright, round polyps.

“Awesome,” Ms. Price, a physician assistant, said. “When you see it, then you realize what’s going on inside your body,” she added, darting inside for a selfie.

The blowup model is part of a Big Colon Tour hitting 50 cities this year. Visitors streamed in one end and out the other, while a health educator pointed out the stages of disease—from a healthy colon at one end of the tunnel to advanced colon cancer at the other end.

Ms. Price and other health professionals say they have few options but to turn to extreme props and spokes-organs to convey medical messages. Smartphone and social media-addicted consumers have too much information to digest these days; creative tactics cut through the clutter to educate and entertain.

“You have to have something. The banners and flags are not good enough anymore,” said Claudio Brunstein, a blood and marrow transplant physician at the University of Minnesota. He ordered a custom-made bone-marrow tunnel, 10 feet long by 12 feet high, for a fundraising event and celebration for a bone-marrow transplant program in July.

A staff member got the idea for the tunnel after seeing the inflatable colon, said Dr. Brunstein, who wants to use it to explain to patients and their families the bone-marrow transplant process. “Every event is known for something,” he said. “We hope our bone-marrow event will be known for the bone-marrow tunnel.”

Henry the Hand, an inflatable costume, was the brainchild of a family medicine doctor in Cincinnati; it promotes four principles of “hand awareness” to prevent the spread of infectious disease. (“Wash your hands when they are dirty and BEFORE eating; DO NOT cough into your hands; DO NOT sneeze into your hands; Above all, DO NOT put your fingers into your eyes, nose or mouth.”)

“We’re going to save the country billions of dollars!” said the doctor, Will Sawyer, who calls himself an “infection prevention specialist.” The hand, sometimes worn at events by his 25-year-old daughter, makes appearances around the country in schools and hospitals to promote hand hygiene.

Medical Inflatable Exhibits Inc., a Houston company, rents inflatable brains, hearts, lungs and a 50-foot long human body to hospitals and schools, said Lauren Hill, founder and president. “We found there is a real need in schools for anatomy education,” she said. “There’s so much to learn in all of these organs,” she said. “We wanted it to be relatable to every member of society.”

Makers of these props say they’re flush with orders. Sales of health-related products are rising about 20% a year at Landmark Creations, a Burnsville, Minn., maker of custom inflatables, according to its president, Tom Meacham. Landmark has made about 300 colons, as well as Henry the Hand, the bone-marrow tunnel, a prostate and a woman’s torso showing normal and diseased breast tissue.

Landmark made its first inflatable colon several years ago as a marketing tool for a nutritional supplement company. The 80-foot-long tunnel attracted interest, so the company developed a smaller, user-friendly version, he said. Now, Landmark manufactures inflatable colons for the Colon Cancer Alliance, which rents and sells them in three sizes and sometimes brings a giant inflatable toilet-paper roll along to events.

Men and women at average risk should be screened for colon cancer starting at age 50. anyone with a personal or family history of colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or other risk factor should be screened before 50 or more often, according to the American Cancer Society. Health educators are trying to reach the goal of increasing colon-cancer screening rates to 80% of adults age 50 and older, up from roughly two-thirds at present. They also want to reach younger adults, some of whom are higher risk.

Many people put off colonoscopies because they fear the procedure, which involves being put to sleep while a scope is inserted inside the rectum and colon. They often dread the “prep” beforehand, which involves fasting and drinking several quarts of a drink that flushes out the system.

The Colon Cancer Alliance launched the Big Colon Tour four years ago to take the focus off the discomfort many feel about colon-cancer screening and make them aware that this form of cancer is preventable, said Michael Sapienza, the organization’s chief executive. With Bayer as a sponsor, the tour this year is taking colons to 5K races, community fairs and medical centers around the country. “To get through the noise, we do have to make it funny,” Mr. Sapienza said.

A giant inflatable colon helps break taboos, said Diana Redwood, a senior epidemiologist with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which bought its own spokes-colon from Landmark and dubbed it Nolan the Colon. Nolan, whose other suggested names and slogans included Tyrannosaurus Rectum and Inside Passage, appears at health fairs and other events around the state. “It definitely changes the tone of the conversation,” Dr. Redwood said. Native Alaskans have high rates of colon cancer.

The colon helped increase visitors’ knowledge about colon cancer, intent to get screened and comfort level in talking about screening, Dr. Redwood and her colleagues found in a survey of 880 adult visitors. The survey was published in Preventing Chronic Disease, a journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A few other studies have had similar results. In a smaller study, researchers at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found visitors to health fairs featuring inflatable colon displays learned more about colorectal cancer and screening than visitors to fairs that had only brochures and other information. But the difference wasn’t statistically significant, and neither group retained the information a month later, according to the study, published in BMC Public Health, an open access journal.

The inflatable colon is subject to hazards similar to those affecting bouncy castles in YouTube videos. Marlene Smith, a nurse in remote Kotzebue, Alaska, said she and a colleague had to weight down a junior version of Nolan using rocks and a cooler and tie it to a fence after it nearly blew into the town harbor on the Chukchi Sea a couple of years ago.

“He was a good 5 feet in the air,” she said. Several visitors signed up for colonoscopies, which are provided by doctors who fly into the area.

In Hampton, outside Atlanta, the visiting colon went down well. Four-year-old Evan Hanie beat several polyps with his fist as his mother, Kristin, pushed a stroller with his 17-month-old sister.

“He said the polyps are really bad, so he has to take care of people and get rid of them,” she said. Visiting the colon reminded her that she was due for a screening, she said, because she is at increased risk of colon cancer.