Olympic swimmer Summer Sanders shares skin cancer battle and offers tips for reducing risks

Phil Ellsworth/ESPN Images(NEW YORK) — Olympic medalist and longtime television broadcaster Summer Sanders is speaking out and spreading awareness about a disease that could have taken her life.

Sanders joined ABC News alongside Dr. Darrell Rigel, a clinical professor of Dermatology at New York University Medical Center and former president of the American Academy of Dermatology, to discuss her battle with melanoma and reducing skin cancer risk.

Years after her Olympic career, as a wife with young children, Sanders noticed a mole her right calf, but thought little of it. Per her husband’s suggestion, she got the mole examined, and the doctor discovered she had Stage 1 cancer on her right calf. Soon after, they spotted melanoma on her left calf. Sanders’ cancer was discovered early, was treated quickly, and she is cancer-free today.

Sanders shared her experience with ABC News and, alongside Dr. Rigel, offered tips that could help others reduce their risk of getting skin cancer:

1. Use sunscreen to protect from burns

The gold medal-winning swimmer spent most of her youth swimming outdoors, and as a result, suffered a lot of sunburn. One of the reasons she was burned so often: she did not discover sunscreen until high school, and says, “I only ever associated sunscreen with vacation–I never ever wore it while I was training.”

While her doctors did not specifically say that sunburn was the direct cause of Sanders’ melanoma, she believes it likely played a role. Now, Sanders refuses to stand in the sun without applying sunscreen. She even jokes with her two children, “You’re so lucky that mom got melanoma because you’re never getting a sunburn in your life.”

2. Limit Exposure to Ultraviolet Rays

Dr. Rigel explains that medical professionals understand the overwhelming cause of skin cancer: too much exposure to ultraviolet light.

He says people can limit their exposure to ultraviolet light by avoiding spending time in the sun without protection (i.e. without sunscreen) and refraining from using tanning beds.

Dr. Rigel is not trying to keep people from going outside. He says people just need to “use common sense” and protect themselves from the sun’s rays while they are at their strongest. He suggests wearing protective clothing, such as a broad-brimmed hat and long-sleeved shirts, and applying sunscreen to vulnerable areas of skin like the face, neck, and legs. He adds that tanning beds expose people to “more intense” ultraviolet light, increasing risk of skin cancer.

Dr. Rigel says people can “significantly lower their risk” of getting skin cancer by taking these steps.

3. Full Body Examinations

If skin cancer gets detected early, it is often “not a big deal,” according to Dr. Rigel. He stresses the importance of visiting a dermatologist for full body examinations early and often.

Doctors told Sanders that they caught her melanoma early–the mole on her left calf was not even classified in a stage yet–and that early detection saved her life.

The cancerous mole on her body was dark and new, which is a sign of a possible health risk. Dr. Rigel says that spots that are “growing, bleeding, crusting or changing” must be checked immediately.

He says people can use the “ABCDE” test for evaluating the risk of moles. A for “asymmetry,” B for “irregular border,” C for “uneven color,” D for “more than diameter of a pencil eraser,” and E for “evolving or changing,” and if there are signs of any of these, people should get their moles checked immediately.

Once skin cancer spreads, it becomes difficult to treat, and according to Dr. Rigel, 10,000 Americans will die from skin cancer this year this year alone. His goal: getting that number down to zero.

Sanders and Rigel suggest visiting www.spotskincancer.org to learn more about types of skin cancer, warning signs and treatment options.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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