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Photo by: Jim Culp on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

NASCAR driver John Andretti, a nephew of racing legend Mario Andretti, passed away from colon cancer in January. He was 56.

Andretti waged a public battle with the disease when he announced in 2017 that he had stage 4 colon cancer. During a news conference he discussed the importance of colonoscopies and soon the #CheckIt4Andretti social media campaign took off. It was his goal to tear down the stigma of the disease.

While this cancer eventually claimed Andretti, it is an avoidable if caught early.

"Colorectal cancer is completely preventable," said Dr. Julian Sanchez, a colorectal surgeon at Moffitt Cancer Center. "If you get your colonoscopies on time — you take a polyp out before it has the chance to become a cancer — you never get cancer at all. Cancers that are caught in very early stage have excellent survival rates; we are talking 80 percent survival rates or more."

Doctors recommend individuals of average risk begin colon cancer screening at the age of 50.

It’s also important to understand risks and learn how to identify possible warning signs of this cancer. The challenge, however, is that early-stage colorectal cancer usually does not produce any noticeable symptoms. That’s why it’s so important to work with a physician who can recommend an appropriate screening plan to meet your unique needs.

When colorectal cancer does produce symptoms, they are often similar to those associated with other health issues, such as infections, hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Therefore, if you notice any possible signs of colorectal cancer, you should promptly see a physician who can provide a comprehensive evaluation and accurate diagnosis.

The five most common signs of colorectal cancer to watch for are:

  1. A change in bowel habits — Diarrhea, constipation, rectal bleeding, a feeling that the bowel does not empty completely or a narrowing of the stool
  2. A change in stool color — Bright red or very dark stools (which could indicate the presence of blood)
  3. Gastrointestinal distress — Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness, cramps or vomiting
  4. Exhaustion — Overwhelming and unexplained feelings of fatigue or weakness
  5. Weight loss — A decrease in fat, muscle mass or body fluid that is unrelated to diet or exercise

Paying attention to your health and your symptoms is the key to prevention and survival, experts say. Mario Andretti, the younger Andretti’s uncle, encouraged fans to use this tragedy as a way to remain healthy.

"This type of cancer, it's known as the silent killer, and it caught him when he was too busy in racing and chasing doing things he loved," Mario said. "He knew he made that mistake, but instantly, his mind-set was 'Maybe, I can help prevent others from making the same mistake.'"