Olympic gold medal swimmer Summer Sanders is no stranger to long days training out under the sun. But being diagnosed with melanoma in a routine dermatologist visit was something she never expected to happen.
The star athlete has since had three melanomas removed and has found a new focus for her immense drive: spread skin cancer awareness.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Summer about her battle with melanoma and how it has shifted her perspective on the importance of sun protection.
This is Summer’s story.
When and how were you first diagnosed with melanoma?
My husband saw a new black mole on my calf and told me for about a year to get it checked out. I finally went and saw a dermatologist for something else (dry patches) and mentioned the mole as he was walking out. He said, “Well, you shouldn’t be getting new moles at your age, but I am not worried about it. We can take it off now or later, what do you think?” I had him take it off only because I never go to the dermatologist. Seven days later I received a call and they said, “We got your pathology report back and we need you to come in tomorrow.” I had completely forgotten they were even looking at the mole and that there was a follow up after they took it off.
How did your diagnosis change your life?
Well, when you hear “malignant melanoma”, you are never the same. I thought I was untouchable in a way. Cancer does not run in my family, I have dark skin and I have almost zero moles or freckles. I just never thought it would be me. So, after my third melanoma diagnosis, I had to reevaluate my relationship with the sun.
What would you say was the most impactful experience of your battle with melanoma?
Being my own advocate. I have learned not to just put my care in any one person’s hands. I chose to learn about my own melanoma and learn why and how my cells are producing the way that they do. I realized very quickly that, although doctors are amazing, they are taking care of many people and the more you, as the patient know, the more you know to ask and the more you push your doctors, in a positive and constructive way, to think differently and be better for you.
What would you most like people to know about yourself?
I have two awesome kids age 14 and 12.
What is your greatest source of strength and/or inspiration?
My family is my greatest source of strength and inspiration. Always has been.
How important was sun protection to you prior to your diagnosis?
Sun protection was always important but never during my training. I was in the pool upwards of 6 hours a day. I never wore sunscreen when I was training. I could be at a training camp in Hawaii and slather it on while we were relaxing or playing at the beach but when we got into the outdoor pool to train, it wouldn’t even cross my mind to apply sunscreen.
Did your diagnosis change your perspective on the importance of sun protection?
Yes, I am much more aware of the ways in which I can protect myself and I have learned to love the sun again.
Is there an inspirational quote or song that keeps you moving forward and gives you strength in your life?
Not really but I love “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison
As a highly active person who assumably spends a lot of time under the sun, what are your favorite ways to stay sun safe?
Apply sunscreen and try to work out during the early morning or later evening hours. I wear a hat or a visor and I wear long-sleeved shirts with UPF when needed.
What is the best advice you can give to someone who thinks that skin cancer won’t happen to them?
Oh skin cancer does not discriminate. Yes, if you are red-haired or fair skin, you are more likely to take this seriously, or so I would hope, but I am proof that even if you don’t burn, never set foot in a tanning bed, have dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes, don’t carry the gene and it doesn’t run in your family….you can still get melanoma. Prolonged consistent exposure to the sun can result in very nicely tanned skin and also, skin cancer.
Any final thoughts and advice?
My goal is never to scare someone into overdoing it with the sun. I love that the sun helps us produce Vitamin D. I am happier when the sun is shining. I am asking all of you to protect as often as you can from too much sun. Balance it out and make sure you are covering up when you feel like it is too intense. Be smart, be aware, and get your skin checked every year on your birthday!!