After Squaring off against Stage IV Colon Cancer, Race Car Driver John Andretti Is on a Mission to Raise Awareness about Colorectal Cancer Screening
by Laura Shipp
When former IndyCar and NASCAR driver John Andretti scheduled his first colonoscopy last year at age 53, he thought he was just ticking off another box on his healthcare checklist. Yearly physicals – check. Colonoscopy at age 50 – well, he was three years late, but he was in good health and his doctor wasn’t too worried about it so neither was he. Check. Then his doctor said those dreaded words – “You have colon cancer” – and everything changed.
“Being healthy is necessary in my line of work,” John tells Coping. As a race car driver from a famous racing family (his uncle is IndyCar legend Mario Andretti), John has always been vigilant about his health. “You have to be healthy or you can’t race,” he goes on to say, “so I really paid attention to it. And then here this thing came and caught me completely off guard.”
However, once he got his bearings, John says he didn’t automatically start thinking the worst. “I’m a very methodical plan activator,” he says. “In other words, when I look at something, I go, OK, what’s our solution? And how are we going to get there? Let’s make a plan, and let’s do it. That’s what you do in racing. When the car’s not working, you go, OK, what’s not right about it and how are we going to try to fix it? It’s no different with this. I thought, let’s make a plan and let’s make it work.”
And that’s what he did. A few days later, John was having surgery to remove part of his colon. He also found out his cancer was stage III. So, his doctors started him on a chemo regimen to eradicate any lingering cancer cells. But then, according to John, “the news just ended up getting worse and worse.”
During chemo, John says he “started having a tremendous amount of pain.” To figure out what was going on, his doctors took some scans, which then led to a biopsy. The cancer had spread to his liver. It was now stage IV. Ever the pragmatist, John looked to the next plan of action: another surgery, followed by more chemo.
I’m in this to win it. There’s no second place here.
“Chemo is the devil,” John exclaims while recounting his treatment history. “Chemo is certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. You’re not fighting something that fights fair. It causes a lot of different side effects, and I’m fighting those now even today.”
Another thing that was difficult for him was letting the public in on his private health struggle. “I’m a really private person,” John confesses, “and certainly nobody but my family would have known that I even had cancer if it weren’t for being pushed that I can make a difference by telling my story. That’s the only reason I went public. Because I really didn’t want people to know. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.”
Knowing that colon cancer is largely preventable, John says he’s also a bit angry at himself for not going in for his colonoscopy sooner. Now, he’s on a mission to raise awareness about colorectal cancer screening. He’s even started a Twitter campaign – #CheckIt4Andretti – encouraging people to get their colonoscopies and tweet about it to help spread the word.
“I told my wife, I’m in this to win it. There’s no second place here,” he says. “You never feel like you can do enough and make a difference, but you just keep trying. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re just going to keep pushing and keep the message out there. Every person that goes [in for a colonoscopy] because of this that wasn’t going to go is additional energy for me to continue to fight and show them that I am going to win it.”
So far, it looks like he’s winning. The “CheckIt4Andretti” hashtag has been tweeted hundreds of times, including this March 1, 2018, tweet from John Andretti himself:
“Well, I received the results from my first scans since completing chemo and all looks good. So we are right on plan! #CheckIt4Andretti”
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2018.
Editor’s Note: John Andretti passed away on January 30, 2020.