May 24, 2017 9:00 AM

summer sanders in swimming pool

Growing up in Roseville, California, Olympic gold medalist Summer Sanders spent every waking hour playing and training outside in the water—usually without sunscreen.

“I associated sunscreen with vacation, not training,” Sanders says.

Then, in 2014, she was diagnosed with melanoma. No one can say for sure what caused Sanders’ melanoma, but she thinks her frequent exposure to the sun was a contributing factor.

young summer sanders dives into swimming pool

Her story begins at a trip to the dermatologist for a different concern. As an afterthought, she mentioned a new mole that her husband (Olympic skier Erik Schlopy) had been telling her she should get checked out.

The dermatologist told Sanders it didn’t look too concerning. Still, Sanders decided to have it removed since she was there. Then she forgot about it until she got a call about 10 days later.

“That phone call was like a scene from a movie,” Sanders remembers. “The woman [told me], ‘We found you have a severely atypical malignant melanoma. We need to see you right away.’”

Sanders made an appointment, hung up the phone, and then realized she hadn’t absorbed what she heard. Armed with a pencil and a piece of paper, she called back and wrote everything down.

“And then I got myself to Huntsman Cancer Institute, knowing that I needed people who deal with this all the time. I wasn’t willing to mess around,” Sanders says. She was treated by Doug Grossman, MD, PhD, an expert in the early diagnosis and treatment of skin cancers. 

Sanders has had three melanomas removed, all caught at stage I or even before. Now, she is a strong promoter of being your own health advocate.

“You cannot be a passenger in your health care—you have to be a crew member, and occasionally you have to be the driver,” Sanders says. She calls herself an information junkie. She writes down all her questions before going to appointments and takes notes when she’s there.

summer sanders with her husband and two children

“Don’t think you can remember everything,” she cautions. “Write it down. Most patients didn’t go to medical school. I love Grey’s Anatomy, but it’s never going to teach me about my own health care.”

You know yourself better than anyone else, Sanders points out, especially when it comes to self-exams for skin cancer. Get to know your skin and understand what your moles look like, she says, so you can spot when something looks strange.

As an athlete, and now a mom, Sanders is using her voice to advocate for sun safety education. She puts skin protection in the same category as seat belts and helmets. Utah has the highest rate of melanoma in the United States, so education is especially important here.

“The more you know,” Sanders says, “the safer you can be.”

Learn more about melanoma and skin cancer prevention.

melanoma skin cancer sun safety cancer prevention patient stories

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