When Olympic gold medalist and TV host Summer Sanders went for a routine dermatology appointment, the last thing she expected was to get a call from the doctor’s office 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 revealed 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 — unlimited access to a backyard swimming pool. But unlike most young people, she was never one to spend hours working on her suntan. Instead, she was swimming laps for up to two and a half hours, twice a day, training for what would become a 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 wised up at age 40, when her husband discovered a new mole on the back of her calf. New moles shouldn’t happen to someone over age 40. The suspicious black spot turned out to be melanoma, which led to a doctor excising a hefty chunk out of her calf.
“It’s very frightening when you learn about melanoma,” Sanders added. She recalls her doctors telling her they wouldn’t know for another five years whether she was going to die.
She explained there are three types of skin cancer: basil, squamous, and melanoma. Melanoma is the most severe. “I call her the ‘mama’ because she’s the mama of skin cancer,” Sanders said. “It’s the killer.” However, 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 influence 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 what she did.
Sanders has partnered with several organizations, including the Skin Cancer Foundation, in hopes of making an impact. “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 advised. “Just make your damn appointment, people!”
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:
- Learning these melanoma ABC’s could save your life
- Sad Girls Club founder’s film about depression ignites a worldwide conversation about ‘Gen Z’ and mental health
- Passion Pit’s frontman says musicians are dying on the road because of ‘over-touring’ — here’s how he’s helping