Colossal Colon to give Tupelo, Oxford unique look

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

A national celebrity of colossal portions is coming to Northeast Mississippi.

Coco the Colossal Colon will have security as she visits The Mall at Barnes Crossing in Tupelo and the Oxford Convention Center, but organizers are hoping as many people as possible will crawl all over her.

"We want to reach as many people as we can," said Carah Edgeworth, a certified nurse practitioner with Digestive Health Associates, sponsor of the Colossal Colon's visit to Tupelo with North Mississippi Medical Center and others.

The 40-foot-long, 4-foot-wide display, which has been featured on NBC's "Today" show, helps spread the word that colorectal cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable.

"It's really neat," said Oxford gastroenterologist Dr. David Bridgers, whose group Gastroenterology Associates of North Mississippi is sponsoring the Oxford visit with Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi. "When people can see something and it's fun, it's easy to learn."

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, but aside from grade school potty humor, many people don't feel comfortable with colon talk.

"It's a body part that's foreign to most people," said Tupelo gastroenterologist Dr. Ernie Williams. The Colossal Colon will hopefully spark conversations. "It shows you everything you need to know."

A crazy project

Coco is the brain child of colon cancer survivor Molly McMaster of upstate New York. McMaster met TV journalist and colon cancer advocate Katie Couric when McMaster was a 2002 Olympic Torch carrier.

Following up on Couric's promise to have her on the NBC's "Today" show if she came up with another wacky idea to promote colon cancer awareness, McMaster developed the idea for Coco, and The Colon Club and others made it a reality.

Since March 2002, the Colossal Colon has hit more than 100 cities to educate young people about colon health and spread the message that colon cancer can strike at any age, and people should be tuned in to their bowel health and get screened appropriately.

Early detection key

Colon cancer typically develops slowly. It characteristically starts as non-cancerous growths, called polyps. Colonoscopies can find the polyps before they become malignant or before any cancer spreads beyond the colon.

If polyps or early-stage colon cancer are found during a colonoscopy, they can be removed, and, in many cases, erase the need for more invasive surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.

"Even when we find colon cancer at stage 1, the survival rate is greater than 95 percent," Bridgers said. "Early detection is key."

For healthy people without a family history of colon cancer, screening with a colonoscopy is recommended at age 50. If the test is clear, it doesn't have to be repeated for 10 years.

People who are having symptoms or have a family history of colon cancer may need a colonoscopy at an earlier age.

The good news is more people are getting screened, and the rate of colorectal cancer deaths declined in 2004, according to government statistics released earlier this year. Improvement in early detection and treatment of colon cancer has helped push the overall cancer death rate lower.

"We've been seeing drops," Williams said. "But there's still too many people who live and die with the gastrointestinal symptoms they have, because they refuse to see a doctor."

In this area, Williams credits North Mississippi Medical Center and primary care doctors with encouraging more people to get screening colonoscopies.

"They have been so supportive," said Carah Edgeworth.

Scope it out

Colonoscopies are considered the gold standard for colon cancer screening because they let physicians look at the entire colon and remove precancerous growths or polyps.

"With a colonoscopy, you have the ability to take care of it then and there," Williams said.

Patients are sedated during the procedure and don't feel any pain.

"Colonoscopy is such a simple test," Bridgers said.

Insurance coverage for screening colonoscopies has improved some since Medicare began covering it, but it is not universal.

"It still needs to improve," Bridgers said.

People should talk with their primary care physician and understand what their insurance covers before scheduling any tests.

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