Sanders has spent her whole life outdoors. She’s always been active and healthy, so imagine her surprise when she was diagnosed with skin cancer.
“I never even thought it would happen to me,” says Sanders, the most decorated U.S. swimmer at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona – she won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze.
Sanders doesn’t have a family history of skin cancer, she never went to tanning beds and she wore sunscreen on vacation and at the beach.
But there’s one thing she didn’t do. When she was training, Sanders was swimming outdoors in a 50-meter pool for two or more hours every day. She wasn’t wearing sunscreen or protective clothing.
“Looking back now, I wonder why I would have that mentality,” she says. “I was in the pool every waking hour and I never, ever associated swim training with sunscreen.”
Sanders’ melanoma was diagnosed in October 2014 after a checkup at her dermatologist’s office. She was there for other skin concerns and mentioned a mole on her right calf to the doctor, who removed it and ordered a biopsy.
A week later, the doctor told her she had stage I severely atypical malignant melanoma. Sanders had surgery to remove it but the scars remain on her leg. She had moles removed from both calves and two on her right triceps.
Sanders goes back to the doctor every six months. She’s grateful for and diligent about early detection, which can lead to high success rates.
She’s also not letting the melanoma hold her back.
“I love it when it’s a sunny day and I can get outside,” says Sanders, who lives in Park City, Utah with her husband, Olympic skier Erik Schlopy, and their kids.
Sanders applies sunscreen daily for everyday activities, as well as during outdoor activities like running, surfing and of course, swimming. She wears hats and exercises early in the day to minimize sun exposure.
Sharing her story
These days, Sanders is a co-host on “We Need to Talk,” a CBS sports female talk show. She volunteers with the John Wayne Cancer Center and Skin Cancer Foundation, as well as Right to Play, an international organization that uses play to educate and empower kids affected by poverty. She wants athletes, parents and kids to learn from her experience.
“Prolonged, consistent exposure to the sun can harm you,” she says. She recommends all athletes get sun smart, wearing hats, protective clothing and using lots of sunscreen.
Sweat and water can amplify the effects of the sun. Sanders recommends swimmers apply sunscreen with zinc before getting into the pool. That’ll provide coverage for the swim, provided it is reapplied often.
Avoid peak times for sun exposure – the sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so exercise outdoors either early or late in the day. Sanders advises everyone get yearly checkups at the dermatologist. Talk to the doctor about any skin concerns, including moles.
“Trust your instincts,” she says.