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Thanksgiving week started for Sharon Sander with a trip to the doctor, where technicians filled her with poison and took swimming away.
“There goes my sanity,” said the 56-year-old former world-class athlete and guru to San Antonio Triathletes.
Nearly three months have come and gone since Sander was told she has Hodgkin lymphoma. There are moments when she sounds as angry and disbelieving of the diagnosis as the day in late August when she first heard the news, but the vast majority of Sander’s time is spent fighting for her life with the infectious positivity and can’t-stop-me spirit for which she is known.
“I’m being poked and prodded and making up for not seeing a doctor in 55 years,” she said. “I really wish that I could do something to help people navigate the medical system, because I had no idea and I get blindsided.”
Sander is recognized throughout the San Antonio fitness community not only for her accomplishments as a former national champion in modern pentathlon but for competing in more than 300 triathlons and coaching dozens of other locals to achievements in the sport over the years.
She used to be a part of a running group that included San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, with whom she still communicates. She also claims to be able to count on one hand the number of times she visited a doctor since she was a little girl prior to late in 2017, when her energy suddenly disappeared and her gut told her something was wrong.
She hasn’t raced since.
It took months of visits to different medical providers to discover her intuition was right. Doctors told her in February and again in April that a lump in her neck was likely fatty tissue. By July, when she seemed to be feeling even worse, she went back and demanded blood tests and an ultrasound, revealing she was anemic and had one cancerous tumor above her collarbone and one below it.
At the urging of her friend Bill Shea, she made an appointment with Dr. Roger Lyons, a hematologist, at the end of August, and he “figured it out in two minutes,” Sander said.
Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer, affecting the lymphatic system. Hodgkin lymphoma typically starts in the lymph nodes and is far less common than non-Hodgkin lymphoma, with only 9,000 people diagnosed in the U.S. each year with one of the six types of Hodgkin lymphoma.
After she was diagnosed, Sander underwent a bone marrow biopsy to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread. She finally got some good news. It was still only in two places.
She had a port installed in her chest last month and began receiving chemotherapy treatments – or as she calls them, “poison.” When she went back for her second treatment this week, she was told she couldn’t swim because of the port, taking away the last bit of exercise she was doing on any kind of regular basis other than walking her dog near Brackenridge Park.
It was disheartening news for a woman who has always prided herself in maintaining an ultra-healthy lifestyle of eating right, exercising religiously, and using homeopathic remedies to treat any occasional illnesses.
“She has a lot of inner strength, though I don’t think she has ever gone through something quite like this before,” said Steven Kluck, a close friend of Sander. “It really bugs her, I think, that this is going on, because it’s so unexpected. I think maybe she expected to have some sort of immunity to this sort of thing with all the time and effort she puts into … really staying fit. I guess she has come to grips with the fact that there isn’t anybody that doesn’t have risk or can be totally passed over for risk to cancer.”
Her prognosis is uncertain, but she is buoyed by reported survival rates above 60 percent for Hodgkin lymphoma patients. She has had numerous people tell her she was lucky to get one of the most survivable cancers, but she scoffs at the notion there is anything lucky about what is happening to her.
“This thing like wastes you,” Sander said. “You’re just tired all the time.”
Sander has competed in more than 300 triathlons since her first, when she was still in college at Cal State East Bay in Northern California in 1983. She completed the famous Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, in 1991, about a year after moving to San Antonio to dive into a new sport, modern pentathlon.
The sport comprises five events: a 200-meter swim, cross-country running, show jumping, fencing, and shooting. Sander had the background for it; she was on the cross country and swim teams in college and grew up riding horses. All she needed to succeed was to learn to shoot a pistol accurately and fence at a competent level.
By the late 1990s, Sander was among the best in the U.S. and was competing for a spot in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
She fell just short of making the team and was named the alternate for the games, but the U.S. took only the men’s team alternate. She watched the Olympics from home. A year later, she won the national championship in the sport.
Sander said when she first began training in the modern pentathlon in the early 1990s, the best coaches in the sport told her she was already too old and too fat to be competitive at an elite level.
“I did pretty good for somebody who was too old and too fat,” she said. “I have two passports full of stamps, because it’s a very international sport.”
Competing in triathlons was a method of training for modern pentathlon when she was active in that sport. When she left modern pentathlon in the rearview mirror in the early 2000s, triathlon received all her attention. She began to coach others and continues to do so even now as she fights for her life.
Sander said a slightly younger version of herself never would have gone through all the waiting she did before finally being diagnosed with cancer, but she had already decided even before she started feeling bad that she was going to compete less and focus more on coaching in 2018.
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“I signed up for like five short, little races thinking like whatever this [stuff] is, it’s going to go away,” Sander said. “I even signed up for a half-marathon at the end of November, but that ain’t going to happen.”
She recently cut her hair short in anticipation of chemotherapy’s side effects. While she waits for her eight chemotherapy treatments to run their course and do their damage, she has educated herself about the disease and the health care system she has found so frustrating. She has resources at her disposal. She fears for those who don’t.
Mike Kelley met Sander in the early 1990s when he was competing in a number of activities and sports. He occasionally needed massages, and a friend recommended Sander to him. She was working as a massage therapist while she trained.
“Her biggest struggles have been her frustration with not being able to be more physical and be more active,” Kelley said. “And I see that, because at 76, I share that frustration. I can’t do what I used to do. The mind wants to, but the body just doesn’t follow.”
Sander is still coaching. It helps her stay connected to everything she loves and the people she has invested so much in over the years. She loves sharing what she has learned over all these years and so many races about competition and what the human body is capable of when it is trained in the right way.
“Sharon doesn’t care if you’re 20 or 80 or whatever physical issues you may have,” said Joyce Wright, who met Sander in the 1990s and began training with her. “She just helps everybody. I’ve never known anyone like that. Usually people will help someone who is like them. She is just so good to everybody. We all did well under Sharon.”
Before she became sick, Sander was considering a move to Florida. She loves San Antonio but hasn’t lived near family in almost 30 years. She has a sister in Florida, another in Utah, and her mother and stepfather still live in California. For now, she’s staying put until she gets healthy. Then, who knows where life might take her?
“I was the last person I would think would ever, ever, ever get cancer,” Sander said. “It doesn’t run in my family. I eat beyond healthy and I’ve always been very active, exercising and taking care of my body.
“I will get through it. Hopefully, I get to live a lot more of this life.”