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Group uses humor to spread cancer prevention message

Polyp Man, aka Warren Larson, protests against colorectal screening outside MeritCare-Bemidji Same Day Surgery. Health care committee members from Bemidji, the Red Lake Nation and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe have organized a series of educational meetings about colorectal cancer screening using humor as a vehicle to open dialog about a difficult subject. Pioneer photo/Molly Miron

Cancer screening can detect early cancer and the polyps that might develop into cancer, but the preparation for the test and the colonoscopy itself are a hard sell. Detected early, colorectal cancer has a 90 percent survival rate.

"We know colon cancer is preventable, and the prevention is screening," said Warren Larson, public policy and community benefit coordinator for MeritCare-Bemidji. "It's a tough message to get across, but dying of colon cancer is miserable."

A committee concerned about the high rate of colon cancer in the Bemidji area - 125 cases diagnosed annually between 2001 and 2005 and 45 deaths - decided to take colon cancer screening education in a new direction.

Members will make presentations this month to Red Lake Nation, the Bemidji Noon Rotary Club, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Ball Club. Red Lake also plans to tape the presentation and post it on the Web site RLNN at

Led by Polyp Man, portrayed by Larson in a lumpy red costume created by Cheryl Winnett, the group will use reverse psychology and humor to focus community attention on the health hazard and urge people to undergo screenings.

"Polyp Man is going to train people how to say 'No' when their doctor brings up a colonoscopy," Larson said. "He wants people to continue eating greasy food, not exercise, and for heaven's sake, don't get a colonoscopy."

Polyp Man's message is that he and his next of kin are happy growing in people's colons and they should "Just leave us alone."

"He fears that they could (put) polyps on the endangered tissues list," Larson said.

In addition to the costume, Larson has incorporated songs by artists such as Polyp Abdul and Polyp McCartney into Polyp Man's schtick.

"This is how we're planning to reach people," he said. "I hope it works because it's pretty silly."

The serious side of the message is that colorectal cancer rates are higher among American Indians than among the general population. Risks include being 50 or older, having diabetes, having a family member who contracted the disease and smoking. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in Minnesota and the United States.

"American Indian men and women are more likely to die of colorectal cancer than any other group in Minnesota," said Rosie Morgan, RN, of Red Lake Community Health Nursing, in a press release. "American Indian men are twice as likely to die of colorectal cancer than any group in the United States."

Eating a diet high in fresh vegetables and whole grains, maintaining healthy body weight and exercising 30-45 minutes five days a week are lifestyle modifications that reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

In addition to his position at MeritCare, Larson serves on the Midwest Division of the American Cancer Society and Minnesota Cancer Alliance boards of directors.

For more information about colorectal cancer screenings, call Christine Eineichner at MeritCare-Bemidji at 333-5059, Morgan at Red Lake Community Comprehensive Health at 218-679-3316 or Cindy Doke at Leech Lake Tribal Health at 335-4546.