“You have cancer.”
For many, those three words can feel like a death sentence. But for others, those three words can be a relief.
Sharon Sander, a former world-athlete, first noticed something was wrong near the end of 2017. She lost her appetite and her energy to train for the triathlons she has competed in for years.
For a year, she would struggle to make her doctors listen, challenge diagnoses and fight the symptoms of her condition. In the time, she experienced weight loss, anemia and a lack of energy to even get out of bed. A mass formed on her neck.
Sander registered to participate in five triathlons in 2018 thinking she’d get over whatever it was, but ultimately, was unable to compete. Sander saw at least three doctors, who brushed off her symptoms and misdiagnosed her with things like simply anemia or something else.
Finally, in the summer of 2018, a retired radiologist and friend examined the lump on her lymph node and referred her to Dr. Roger Lyons in San Antonio.
Dr. Lyons said Sander had all of the symptoms of Hodgkin Lymphoma, an uncommon form of cancer, which in her case grew slowly.
According to Texas Oncology, “Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph system and is diagnosed by the identification of a characteristic cell under the microscope (the Reed- Sternberg cell). Hodgkin’s lymphoma typically begins in the lymph nodes in one region of the body and then spreads through the lymph system in a predictable manner. It may spread outside the lymph system to other organs such as the lungs, liver, bone and bone marrow.”
A biopsy of the mass on her lymph node tested positive. Sander finally had her answer.
Sander said Dr. Lyons figured it out in two minutes what it was.
Dr. Lyons said Sander had Stage 2B disease; she had symptoms, but the disease wasn’t widespread. Sharon had tumors only in the chest and neck.
“When I finally did have Chemo, it made me feel good,” Sander said. “It brought back my appetite. Right away, my red blood count started going up, so that gave me energy. I wish I would have been diagnosed earlier.”
Dr. Lyons said during her treatment, Sander often asked when she could begin her normal exercising routine, which included cycling, swimming and running.
“The worst experience of the whole thing was trying to figure out what was wrong with me,” Sander said. “Not to say Chemo is a walk in the park and that I ever want to do it again. But it definitely wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I never got sick.”
Sander said despite what most people tell you to do during chemo, she exercised, ate healthy, light foods and stayed away from people.
“How they do chemo these days, they’re really good about giving you the right combination of steroids and anti-nausea to help keep you from getting sick,” Sander said. “Chemo isn’t as bad as everyone thinks it is. I think when you’re going through it, you need to focus and stay positive. Do things that feel good, and that will help you.”
Dr. Lyons said Sander’s choices to eat healthily and exercise were likely key factors in her recovery.
Sander completed her last round of Chemo on Valentine’s Day 2019. After over a year of struggling with fatigue and loss of appetite, she was able to return to her normal life.
She registered to compete in the Texas State Sprint Triathlon in San Marcos on April 14. The event would mark her first competition since she competed in New Braunfels’ Wurst Tri Ever Sprint in October 2017.
The Texas State Sprint Triathlon is the original and classic triathlon at the Meadows Center and is hosted by Texas State University’s Triathlon club and alumni. The event has been going since 1999.
The relay is comprised of three courses: a swim, bike and run. Participants swim 400m of Spring Lake before doing a 12-mile bike course from the Meadows Center to Yarrington road. Racers finish off running a 3-mile loop around Spring Lake and meadows center toward the Spring Lake Preserve and back.
“I’ve done the Texas State Tri many times,” Sander said. “The San Marcos race is super special. Swimming in that body of water is like none other. They don’t even let people in that water normally.”
Sander said she wasn’t in her best shape, but she just wanted to be able to finish the race; as a former Olympic athlete, she is used to finishing in first, but she said she was just happy to be there amongst her friends many of whom showed up and raced in support.
The Texas State Tri marked Sander’s first active step in getting back to her life before her diagnosis.
She plans to continue participating in races and being active in the Texas and San Antonio fitness community. However, she said she would follow her original plans to move to Florida and help her sister follow her dream of running an Airbnb.
Sander said the health system is a little broken, and that you need an advocate; you have to look out for yourself when it comes to your own health.
“If I’d have put my symptoms into Google, it would have shown one of the culprits could have been lymphoma,” Sander said. “And the doctors I saw had this information. When you feel bad, follow through on it. Do a little research on your own. Don’t push through and think it’s going to go away. You’ve got to get to the bottom of it.”
Sander says going through cancer is a pain in the butt, but it’s not the end of your life. You’ll never be the same again because it makes you think differently, but it’s something you can get through and come back out the other end even better than before.
“Cancer isn’t necessarily a death sentence but more of a wakeup call.”