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The Colossal Colon

                                    Steven Church

One day not long ago at a suburban mall, my three-year-old son and I crawled through the Colossal Colon. It was forty-feet long, pink, and riddled with cancer. At the puckered entrance a smiling nurse asked us to don a pair of blue sanitary booties.

“Put these on your feet,” she said. “It’s to protect the colon.”

I took the booties and resisted my juvenile urge to request some personal lubricant. This didn’t seem like the way a dad should act around his son. I knew I should be more mature, be a better image of fatherhood, a role model maybe, but we were about to crawl through something called the Colossal Colon. Etiquette seemed a dubious expectation at best. I wasn’t sure there was a proper way to behave in a giant diseased intestine. Still, for the sake of my son, I suppressed my inner child and entered the colon.

I knew this experience was supposed to be educational and informative, and that my son could maybe even learn important lessons from it about health and his body. But what if it was just a toy, a playground accessory at the mall? As I ducked down to follow my son into the tunnel, I figured anything could happen.

That morning I’d read a story in the newspaper about the Colossal Colon, a touring exhibit designed to raise awareness about colorectal cancer, and when I read the words, 40-foot long colon, I immediately knew that we had to see it. I don’t know if other fathers had the same reaction, but it seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up—the sort of experience fathers and sons are supposed to share. The next step was to convince my son. With a toddler, the key to acquiescence is a successful sales pitch.

I presented it in this way, “Hey buddy, you wanna go to the mall and crawl through a giant pink tunnel?”

He answered predictably, “Can we, can we? Please!”

The Colossal Colon’s visit to the mall happened to coincide with Potty Training Week for my son. He would start pre-school soon, and a recent email warned that our children must be 100% potty-trained—no exceptions. It included vague warnings about possible expulsion if our children could not master this skill (yes, I’ve learned that it is, indeed, a skill that must be learned, and you can, in fact, be expelled from preschool for pooping issues). The pressure was on. So as a way to demystify the whole process of pooping, we’d been showing him pictures of the intestines in his “Body Book,” and talking about the systems of his body, focusing most of our attention on the digestive system; and now we had the opportunity to take a tour of a giant pink colon.

Things were working out better than I’d imagined.

I explained on the drive to the mall that, while the colon does indeed play an important role in pooping, we couldn’t really talk a lot about poop while we were in the mall.

“It’s not polite to talk about that in public,” I said as we parked the car.

We strolled up to the entrance with a mother and her three quiet well-behaved kids, and with her I exchanged the knowing sympathetic smile that parents give each other in public—as if to say, “Aren’t we all just so damn cute you want to die.”

I doubted if she and her kids were there to see the Colossal Colon.

Just as we approached the mall entrance, step-in-step with the mom and her kids, my son turned to me and asked, “Daddy, why can we not talk about poop at the Colossal Colon?”

I smiled at the woman and her kids, ignoring the horrified look on her face, and tried to distract my son from his current line of questions. She obviously wasn’t there for the colon. “Hey, buddy” I said, “the, uh . . . exhibit doesn’t open until 10:00. You want to get a donut?”

“Do they have a Dunking Donuts?” he asked, taking the bait.

“Right up ahead,” I said as I steered the stroller into line and ordered us each a colon-clogging, fat-filled donut. I needed to kill some time. Plus I didn’t really want to be milling around like groupies or pie-eyed tourists waiting for the Colossal Colon to open. It was weird enough to be there in the first place. We didn’t need to look like rabid fans of the Colossal Colon, camping out to be the first ones through every morning, and collecting the “I Crawled at the Mall” stickers they hand out, keeping them in a photo-album next to repeated snapshots of us emerging from the colon, smiling and happy.

Shortly after 10:00 we waddled down the hall to the commons area. As it turns out, the Colossal Colon has a name, “Coco,” and a fan club. You can purchase a T-Shirt that reads, “I ♥ Coco.” A theme-design company called Adirondack Scenic that specializes in crafting sets for Hollywood movie studios and other entertainment venues built Coco to exacting specifications. The website, www.colonclub.com, says that, “Actual colonoscopy footage was used to ensure that the features inside the Colossal Colon® are as realistic as possible.” Coco can be rented and to date has appeared in seventy-four cities in thirty-four countries.

My son and I waited patiently at the mouth of Coco as if it was an amusement park ride. A few other older fathers lingered around with their kids, chatting it up with the nurses.

My first indication that this might not be quite what I expected came when I heard one man proudly announce, “That’s what I had,” to his older daughter. “I always wondered what it looked like.” His daughter gave him a hug.

He seemed so happy and proud. He had the self-conscious glow of a survivor; and I realized how this thing, bizarre as it might have seemed, served other purposes beyond awareness. It allowed people to confront their cancer, their mortality, and to grieve, perhaps even gloat over their efforts to fight off the attack. It was like seeing your nemesis on display, captured and contained for public viewing.

When our time came, my son and I donned the blue booties and entered the reddish-pink tube. It was about four feet in diameter and cramped enough that I had to crawl, while my son could walk upright most of the way. The walls were made of some kind of polymer or plastic compound—the kind of thing they use in museums to make fake rocks or in zoos to create natural-looking artificial habitat, and in mall playgrounds to make slides and climbing walls. The floor was padded with foam, which protected my knees from the hard ridges and bumps of the lower intestine.

Our first stop was Crohn’s Disease. “See how it eats away the lining of your intestine,” I said, pointing to the recessed scars and pockmarks that looked like they’d been carved with a blowtorch.

“Ooo, Daddy, look at this,” he said excitedly, already moving ahead of me, down the intestinal tunnel. “What is it?” he asked, pointing at a bulbous growth.

“Oh, boy! That’s a pre-cancerous polyp,” I said. “Feel it.”

My son rubbed his hand over the protruding, reddish lump and smiled.

A little further down the tunnel, the light faded, and we reached the early stages of colon cancer. A thick red bloom of tissue sprouted into the tunnel and oozed out a hole in the roof.

“Doesn’t it look like a volcano, Daddy?” he said as he stood straight up and poked his head out of the hole.

“Yeah, it does actually. Sort of like lava, huh?”

“Yeah, like lava,” he said and moved on.

I sat there, rubbing my hands over the lumpy lava landscape, trying not to think that this is what my colon might look like some day, what it might look like today. According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer has a mortality rate of close to 50% with approximately 130,000 new cases diagnosed every year. The Colon Cancer Foundation estimates that 10% of these cases, or 13,000 young men and women under the age of 50 will be diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008.

The Colon Club uses Coco the Colossal Colon as part of its efforts to raise awareness about colorectal cancer in “out of the box” ways. They include in their materials a listing of the symptoms of colorectal cancer.

* The most common symptom is no symptom at all
* Change in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation, narrow stools)
* Unexplained weight loss, vomiting, lack of energy, unexplained anemia
* Blood (often not visible) in the stool (poop) or from rectum (bum)
* Abdominal pain/discomfort (gas, bloating, cramps, feeling that the bowel doesn't empty completely)

If you have any of these symptoms for more than a few weeks, see a doctor and get a colonoscopy!

The first one really worried me. After reading this, I was nearly convinced I needed to make an appointment for the old rubber-glove exam; and the stuff I saw inside Coco didn’t help alleviate my fears. It was painful looking and horror-movie scary in the close, shadowy confines of the tunnel.

I had to admit that Coco was doing the trick and making me, first, petrified of getting actual colorectal cancer and, second, demystifying it for me a bit—exactly what the organizers behind the Colossal Colon appearance here had in mind. Coco somehow made it cool to think about your colon. This cancer could be my future, and my son’s too; and it’s not as far away as we might think.

As I exited the Colossal Colon tunnel, stumbling into the bright lights of the mall, I circled around the outside of the tunnel and admired the realistic replicas of all the stages of cancer. I waited for my son to go through again and casually rubbed my hands over the external hemorrhoids. I wondered if I’d made a mistake bringing him here. If I did, I hoped it was the kind of mistake that makes me a good, if not imperfect father. There is a fine line, I realized, between scarring your children for life and sculpting their identities in odd and interesting ways.

I had no way of knowing that his pre-school teacher would approach me with concern a week later and inform me that my son, “keeps talking about his colossal colon.” I had no way of knowing that he would soon be able to list all the parts of the digestive system and would draw them on his magnetic doodle-pad for family, friends, and total strangers.

Their eyes would widen as he used the stylus to trace the path of food down from the mouth, down the esophagus, into the stomach, through the “colossal colon” and out the rectum. They’d look at me and I’d just shrug—not because I was ashamed but because I was proud of my boy and his odd obsessions. They just might save me some day. Who knows? Perhaps he will grow up to become a gastroenterologist or an oncologist and trace his career path back to the day his father took him to the mall so he could crawl through a 40-foot disease-ridden colon named Coco.

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