Olympian Summer Sanders’ Skin Cancer Scare
Advocacy The gold medalist swimmer learned the hard way that protecting the health of your skin is a full-time job. Now she wants to help others learn from her mistakes.
In 1992, Summer Sanders took home four medals at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Even as a Golden State native and lifelong swimmer, she never considered skin cancer to be a serious threat.
“I only associated sunscreen with vacation; I never associated it with training,” she recalls. “I would be at training camp in Hawaii and would spend two and a half hours in the water under the sun, but wouldn’t think to put on sunscreen.”
While heredity often plays a significant role in skin cancer, Sanders found false confidence in genetics. “My dad’s mother is from South America. He and I have dark hair, skin and eyes, and my mother and brother have fair skin and blue eyes,” she says.
A painful diagnosis
Years later, her husband noticed an unfamiliar mole on her right calf. After months of putting it off, she finally agreed to undergo a biopsy. Seven days later, her dermatologist called with news that changed her life forever: “He said it was atypical malignant melanoma — stage 1.”
She reports not understanding how serious her diagnosis was until a doctor explained in layman’s terms. “He said, ‘I cannot tell you that you won’t die from this. I won’t know that for five years.’” For Americans, calls like this are all too common. According to the American Cancer Society, each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon.
“Yes, dermatologists are experts when it comes to skin cancer, but a patient’s intuition is something that should always be respected and considered.”
The patient perspective
After locating a specialist that she now refers to as her “cancer doc,” Sanders started taking prevention seriously. “It’s beautiful that you get to have a lot of control when it comes to melanoma,” she shares.
Now Summer keeps lines of communication with her dermatologist open, and encourages readers to do the same. “[Dermatologists] have to listen to the patient. They recognize that there is only one person who is an expert in one patient’s skin — and that is the patient themselves,” she explains. “Yes, dermatologists are experts when it comes to skin cancer, but a patient’s intuition is something that should always be respected and considered.”
Her advice for families looking to keep their skin safe this summer? “Reconsider the way you are applying sunscreen. I know a lot of people love sprays, but I still use the old-fashioned cream,” she urges. “Apply more than you think you should, and give it a second to soak in.” She also stresses the importance of protective clothing. While all fabrics disrupt UV radiation to some degree, articles that do the best job boast an ultraviolet protection factor rating from 15 to 50.
Sanders hopes her advocacy efforts will encourage people to stop seeing prevention as a part-time job. “Everyone associates sunscreen with vacation, but what about your golf game that starts at 7:00 a.m. and goes until noon?” she asks.