As Randi Eisenshtat smiled and posed for a photo at the, er, exit of a giant inflatable colon in Times Square on Friday, she turned to her brother and chastised him, giggling.
"It's not funny!" Eisenshtat, 26, shouted over her shoulder. "My brother was making farting noises. He's very mature."
It's a pretty normal reaction to the 20-foot, walk-through colon with 3-dimensional representations of Crohn's disease, colorectal polyps and the different stages of colon cancer. It's officially called the Prevent Cancer Super Colon, and it's been displayed around the country for years to draw attention to colon issues and get people talking. On Friday, it was in New York City to kick off National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.
"People laugh and they're a little bit shy and embarrassed at first, but then they dive in and share a lot," said Cheryssa Jensen, who has given colon tours for two years as part of her work for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. "I hear graphic details. They talk about everything."
Colorectal cancer, the combined name for colon and rectal cancers, is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society , which estimates that about 143,000 new cases will be diagnosed by the end of 2013. Colorectal cancer is expected to cause nearly 51,000 deaths in the U.S. this year alone.
Symptoms can include bloody stools, persistent stomach pain or irregular bowel movements that don't go away. And there's an embarrassment factor that can keep patients from going to the doctor, said Dr. Jordan Berlin, a gastrointestinal oncologist at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.
"In Canada, there's a promotion to get people to go to colon cancer screenings that had naked butts on billboards," Berlin said. "They're trying to say, yes, you're embarrassed to talk about it, but it is it really worth risking your life not to talk about this?"
He said colorectal cancer is one of the top five causes of rectal bleeding, but it's the fifth one.
"It's the one you don't want to miss," he said.
Still, he said attitudes are slowly shifting toward more openness about colon problems as people learn that colonoscopies aren't "that bad." A colonoscopy is a 30-minute test in which a doctor inserts a tube with a camera on the end of it into the patient's anus to check the entire colon for cancerous or precancerous growths. The patient, of course, is sedated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends routine colonoscopies for people over the age of 50. However, younger people with other risk factors, such as a family history of colon cancer, polyps or Crohn's disease, should also get routine screenings.
"You don't have to be 50," said Carlea Bauman, president of Fight Colorectal Cancer, a national advocacy group that kicked off its most recent awareness campaign with the giant colon in Times Square. "We're trying to raise awareness among the general population," she said. "When people are diagnosed early, it's very survivable. When people are diagnosed late, it's far less survivable. It can make the difference between life and death."
Pam Seijo, a teacher from West Virginia, was 39 years old and working on bulletin boards for her classroom when her colon ruptured, causing her to double over in pain, she said. Feverish and vomiting, she went to the hospital, and remembers asking the doctor if she had cancer.
"He said, 'You're too young for cancer. You would never have it,'" Siejo said.