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NMSU cancer awareness initiative introduces Inflatable Colon

NMSU cancer awareness initiative introduces Inflatable Colon

Janeth Sanchez (left), New Mexico State University community health educator for the Colorectal Cancer Awareness initiative, discusses health issues with an unidentified visitor at the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafters Market. The addition of the eye-catching Inflatable Colon as an educational tool was made possible through a grant from the National Cancer Institute's National Outreach Network. (NMSU photo by Jay A. Rodman)

It may bring back memories, in those old enough to remember it, of the 1966 sci-fi film "Fantastic Voyage," where miniaturized humans in a shrunken submarine explore the interior of a human body. You won't need special equipment, though, to explore the inner recesses of the Inflatable Colon, now appearing at health fairs and other events around southern New Mexico.

The visual aid for promoting colon health was introduced to the region recently by New Mexico State University health educators staffing the Colorectal Cancer Awareness information booth at the Las Cruces Farmers and Crafters Market.

"This is actually the first time we're using this educational tool to inform the community members about the importance of screening to detect colon cancer at an early stage or before it develops," said Janeth Sanchez, the community health educator for the project. "Past research shows that visual aids can help individuals make positive changes in their health behaviors, such as getting screened, eating healthier and exercising."

The Inflatable Colon was acquired through funding from the National Cancer Institute's National Outreach Network, according to Sanchez. She said the overarching purpose of that grant, which also created her NMSU position, is to address cancer health disparities in the region. The funds also support the establishment of a network for educational outreach activities, particularly in underserved communities.

The Inflatable Colon is nearly eight feet tall. It is essentially a tunnel, open at both ends, with interior walls representing polyps, various stages of colorectal cancer and Crohn's disease, as well as normal colon tissue. Bilingual signs affixed to the interior walls label the three-dimensional features in this very large intestine.

At the farmers market, the colon had been set up on the main thoroughfare near tents featuring freshly baked bread and framed artwork. It was hard to miss, and a steady flow of people wandered through. In addition to Sanchez, NMSU educational specialist Vanessa Martinez was on site to explain the risks of colon cancer and the need for screening after age 50. Janeth's sister Jenny Sanchez was also there as a volunteer, handing out literature and encouraging people to fill out a survey.

While it may not be as fun as inflatable playground equipment that youngsters can jump on, slide down and bounce off, the Inflatable Colon does attract kids as well as adults. "We hope to basically encourage individuals to get screened at an early age and we have actually had interest from the young ones," Sanchez said. "They've come by and gotten information. So we encourage them to educate either their parents or their grandparents, since they're at a screening age."

The team was pleased with the results of their heightened visibility. Sanchez said by mid-morning they had probably talked to more than double the number of people they previously interacted with in an entire morning.

One visitor to the display was Albert Saldana, a firefighter from El Paso. "It answers some of the questions that I had," he said. "It makes me wonder: when should I go get tested, follow up with my doctor and try to see if I have some diseases going on? And if not, also try to prevent it and live a healthy lifestyle."

Although Las Cruces provided the venue for the colon's debut, the Colorectal Cancer Awareness team has attended health fairs in six additional New Mexico communities: Alamogordo, Deming, Hatch, Lordsburg, Silver City and Truth or Consequences. Anthony is also on their itinerary for the future.

Upcoming summer appearances for the team and the Inflatable Colon include:

•June 25, Las Cruces Health Fair, sponsored by the Las Cruces Sun-News, at the Las Cruces Convention Center
•July 23, Lordsburg Health Fair
•July 30, Alamogordo Men's Health Fair

There are research aspects to the Colorectal Cancer Awareness initiative. The voluntary surveys that visitors to the booth are asked to fill out help the team evaluate participants' current knowledge and behavior and their future intentions.
"From the assessments, we have found that from those individuals who should be getting screened for colorectal cancer, age 50 and older, only about 50 percent have gotten screened," Sanchez said. "Therefore, it is crucial for us to continue educating the southern New Mexico communities in an effort to encourage them to get screened."

She said they will also be contacting doctors' offices in the cities they are visiting with their education booth. "We are going to be comparing screening rates in southern New Mexico from 2010 and 2011 in the future," she said.

The Colorectal Cancer Awareness initiative is a small part of a large and well-established collaboration between NMSU and the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Partnership for the Advancement of Cancer Research: NMSU/FHCRC.

This two-institution team has been funded by the National Cancer Institute's Minority Institution / Cancer Center Partnership Program since 2002. NMSU is a "Hispanic Serving Institution" and involving minority and female students in the STEM areas (science, math, engineering and technology) is an institutional priority.

The lead NMSU researcher for the partnership is Mary O'Connell, a Regent's Professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. She is an expert in Southwestern medicinal plants and is actively engaged in assessing the cancer-fighting properties of some of their chemical compounds

The partnership has included NMSU-FHCRC exchanges of students, faculty and staff over nearly a decade, she reports.

"Each summer, eight NMSU students work as interns in research groups at the FHCRC; others work on collaborative research projects year round, with shorter trips to Seattle for specialized techniques," O'Connell said. She said that to date, 188 NMSU students have been supported by partnership funds to work on various cancer projects.

According to O'Connell, $15 million in NCI grant money to the two institutions has been invested in cancer research, training and outreach activities related to the issue of cancer health disparities in New Mexico.

The partnership has engaged 18 NMSU faculty members from a diverse set of departments. While the majority of them are doing lab-based projects, others are focusing on issues such as the value of gardening in improving health on the Navajo Reservation, the impact of exposure to heavy metals on cancer risk in southern New Mexico, and the improvement of community outreach efforts promoting cervical cancer screening.

Janeth Sanchez's involvement in partnership projects while she was an NMSU graduate student helped her fulfill the requirements for her Master's in Public Health degree.

"Ms. Sanchez is a great example of the value of this partnership," O'Connell said. "She spent two summers at FHCRC to enrich her MPH training from NMSU. She is now a recognized Cancer Health Educator who has stayed in New Mexico to make our community a healthier place."

For more information about the Colorectal Cancer Awareness initiative, contact Sanchez at janets@nmsu.edu or 575-646-2115.

To find out more about NMSU cancer research initiatives, go to http://cancer.nmsu.edu