Starting Young

Anita and daughter

Written by Emily Mitchell (left) daughter of 2007 Colondar survivor Anita Mitchell (right)

As I thought about how to approach my 25-second graders about colon cancer awareness, all I could think about is “I don’t want to scare them” and “can they handle this”. I thought these two things for many reasons. One being that this is a very REAL issue and two being that we are talking about the parts of our body that people seem to avoid like the plague. Funny thing is, in a way colon cancer is a plague. The definition of plague, according to dictionary.com is “an epidemic disease that causes high mortality”. Not many people know that colon cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined in the United States, and that sounds like a plague to me.

After thinking it over and looking through the power point for my lesson, I decided that whether my students were mature enough to handle it or not, they would at least be talking about it at home to their loved ones. In that case, my mission of colon cancer awareness would be somewhat accomplished, right? What came from my conversation was so much more than I ever could have imagined, and I am almost ashamed to have had my previous doubts.

I began with talking about colon cancer with my students by asking them if they have ever known anyone with a type of cancer or anyone who has suffered from an illness. This part of your lesson as a teacher would be called the “connection”, making what the students are learning relevant to their lives, it’s the “buy in”. Almost all of my students raised their hands, and once they remembered my mom had colon cancer they all had their hands up (at least I know they kind of listen to me, HA!). Once we discussed what cancer was, we talked about ways to stay healthy, such as exercising, eating well and seeing your doctor. After we had coasted through the first parts of the conversation, we came upon the dreaded discussion about THOSE parts of your body.

“If you are not mature enough to handle this conversation, then we can find another classroom for you to wait in, until we are finished”, was said ONE TIME as I mentioned the words, “colon, anus, going to the bathroom”. “Do we all have these parts in our bodies? Do we all have to go to the bathroom?” I asked. “YES!” they all answered, on their knees with interest. I went on to explain the digestive track and what happens when you get colon cancer. My students were AMAZED! They were not only practically silent, holding onto every word, but were engaged by asking questions such as “what do the enzymes in your stomach look like?” and “what chooses between which foods go to the colon and which ones give you energy?”

Of course after this conversation occurred my children began to assume I was a medical professional, which followed with many questions that I could not answer. But, my point is that these children, who read Captain Underpants for fun, were able to put any sort of immaturity aside to engage in a conversation that many adults are not willing to have. This mindset is something that I feel truly blessed and lucky to experience while working with children and it is something too overlooked. My fear of “scaring” my students with the potential outcome of cancer diminished, as they were able to focus on the importance of colon cancer awareness; that it can be preventable, treatable and beatable, and to get screened as adults. These kids were going to be successful in spreading this message because they felt empowered.

Did our conversation end in the classroom that afternoon? Nope. The next day my students, along with the rest of the school, participated in Dress in Blue Day. Every single one of my students proudly greeted me at the door with a flash of their blue shirt, socks, jacket, scarf, shoes and whatever else they could manage. Students were referencing themselves as the “colon cancer awareness team” and practicing their “ask me why I’m blue” act. They were disappointed to see not everyone was wearing blue, but they were determined to spread the message.

We happened to have Science Night at our school that evening and what would be better than having a giant inflatable colon to walk through?! Greeted with hugs and smiling faces, still wearing their blue, were my kids with their parents and grandparents to show and tell them about colon cancer. I had many parents joke about having their child ask them multiple times to get screened, or that they were told they shouldn’t be scared because Ms. Mitchell has had 2 colonoscopies already! “I am happy to finally be seeing this, I have heard about it all week!” a parent said to me as her son (one of my students) coaxed her along. The inflatable colon was their first stop, as it was for many of my students. Let me just tell you, that was even BEFORE seeing the reptiles! And if you ask me, that says a lot for 7 and 8 year olds.

So now I ask you, why not start spreading this message with youth? These children are able to see what a lot of adults cannot, getting screened and being aware of the symptoms can save your life, its worth talking about. Why wouldn’t you get screened if this could save your life? For children it is very black and white. If it could save your life, why wouldn’t you do it? Of course as adults, life gets in the way, that appointment gets put on the to do list, gets forgotten, gets replaced and before you know it, so much time has passed that the thought of finding out unwanted news seems better unknown. Now let me ask you this, would you get screened for your kids? If your child is asking you to get checked for colon cancer, are you going to tell them no?

I don’t believe that the knowledge my students have gained about colon cancer is going to stop with them. I may be a wishful thinker, but I feel as though this has opened the door to colon cancer awareness for many in my community. Education is a very powerful thing and we can definitely take the time to learn something from children. If you can put insecurities aside, you may be pleasantly surprised and it may save your life.