When Olympic Gold Medalist and TV Host Summer Sanders went in for a routine dermatologist appointment, the last thing she expected was to get a call the following day.
“The first thing that the person said on the other end of the phone was that, ‘You have a severely atypical malignant melanoma,’” she reveals to Yahoo Lifestyle. I think the only word I sort of knew was ‘malignant,’ and I knew it wasn’t good.”
Growing up in California, Sanders lived out every child's fantasy - having unlimited access to a backyard swimming pool. But unlike most kids her age, she was never one to spend hours in the sun tanning. Instead, she was swimming laps up to two and a half hours, twice a day, training for what was soon to be her triumphant Olympic career.
“I wore sunscreen on every vacation, but what I didn’t do is I did not associate sunscreen with training,” Sanders says. “I was always naturally really tan, so I felt like if I had a tan, that’s sort of like my built in sunscreen. What an idiot I was to think that was not sun damage,” she admits.
Sanders wizened up at age 40 when her husband pointed out a new mole on the back of her calf, something – she points out - shouldn't happen with the over-forty crowd. The suspicious black spot turned out to be melanoma, which led to doctors excising an ice cream scoop-sized chunk out of her calf.
“It’s very frightening when you learn about melanoma,” Sanders adds. She recalls her doctors telling her they wouldn’t know for another five years whether or not she was going to die.
She explains there are three types of skin cancer – basil, squamous and melanoma, melanoma being the most severe. “I call her the ‘mama’ because she’s the mama of skin cancer,” she says. “It’s the killer.” But she adds that the earlier you can detect it, the better your chances are for survival.
Surprisingly, Sanders’s journey with melanoma didn’t end there. Her doctors diagnosed her with three more melanomas, and she underwent three more excisions to remove them.
Having been in the public eye as a TV host and Olympic champion, Sanders uses her platform to raise awareness about the effects of skin cancer. She targets young athletes and kids, imploring them to increase their sun protection so they don’t experience a fate similar to hers.
She partners with several organizations, including the Skin Cancer Foundation, in hopes that sharing her story won’t fall on deaf ears. “I have this saying that every year on your birthday, check yourself out in your birthday suit, and find the [moles] that catch your eye,” she advises. “Just make your damn appointment people.”