Deb Nyquist, Wellness Director at the Dena'ina Wellness Center, and Youth Services Clinician Fridrick Gudmundsson stand under "Nolan the Colon" as they talk Monday about the importance of colorectal cancer screenings for adults. "Forty is the new fifty," Nyquist said about the need for Alaska Native people to be screened earlier than once thought, as they have colorectal cancer rates twice as high as rates seen in Caucasian people. Health educators from Southcentral Foundation brought the educational display to the Dena'ina Wellness Center to help raise awareness of the importance of regular screenings and a healthy diet. (M. Scott Moon/Kenaitze Indian Tribe)

“Nolan the Colon” spotlights colorectal cancer

  • By Rashah McChesney
  • Tuesday, March 10, 2015 12:24am
  • News

If the 12-foot inflatable colon replica, complete with polyps, didn’t catch the attention of visitors at the Dena’ina Wellness Center Monday, not much else could have.

“Nolan the Colon,” a teaching tool on loan from the Anchorage-based, Southcentral Foundation was set up in the wellness center as part of a month of events designed to spotlight colorectal cancer and the importance of colon screening tests.

“The fun of having that inflatable colon there is you can walk through it like a bouncy house,” said Dena’ina Wellness Center Wellness Director Deb Nyquist. “Kiddos that came through it were punching the polyps like punching bags.”

The screening is especially important for Alaska Native people who are two times more likely to get colorectal cancer than caucasian people in the U.S., according to statistics from the Southcentral foundation.

The optimal screening age for Alaska Native people is 40, a decade earlier than what is typically suggested for other people in U.S. demographics.

The awareness program was held in partnership with the Southcentral foundation and the Dena’ina Wellness Center’s wellness services staff who support medical staff in the building, Nyquist said.

The inflatable was an icebreaker for some members of the small crowd that attended the event.

“Having this giant colon, this big giant model that had the polyps in it … it takes some of the fear and anxiety out of talking about that procedure,” Nyquist said. “There are a lot of barriers with why people wouldn’t talk about it, let alone have the procedure done.”

In addition to the un’ina, or guests of the wellness center who were invited to the event, Nyquist said medical staff from other parts of the building learned how they could use wellness staff to support efforts to raise awareness about other medical issues.

“We have medical, behavioral health, substance abuse and wellness services,” Nyquist said. “One of the doctors got really excited wen she saw the possibilities of other health promotion activities. So we already started planning for our breast and cervical screening event that we’re going to have in October.”

Wellness center staff spotlight a “measure of the month,” which highlights medical issues that need screening or treatment. March’s measure is colorectal cancer which killed more than 51,000 in the United States in 2011, according to the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control.

Wellness staff will also be holding cooking classes and a smoking-cessation event to encourage people to quit using tobacco, as part of the fight against colorectal cancer.

“We have a ‘Kick Butts’ day and free quit kits will be given to everyone who comes in and asks for one — either chewing tobacco quit kits or smoking tobacco quit kicks,” she said.

Nyquist said the polyps, which are abnormal tissue growths on mucous membranes in the body, were a talking point for people who walked through the inflatable colon.

“They were learning that those polyps were what their doctor would be looking for when they had the screening done,” Nyquist said. “They were surprised to learn that there’s often no symptoms — they could have polyps and not know it.”


Reach Rashah McChesney at or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens

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