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Wounded warrior battles life, career, competition

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

It was stage IV.

He had known about the cancer, but until his trip to the emergency room that day in 2007, he hadn’t been told how far it had spread throughout his body. The doctor then shared with the master sergeant that his chances of survival over the next five years were at 55 percent and if he was willing to fight, the cancer might not be the death sentence he imagined.

Right then and there, Mike Sanders was scheduled for an extensive surgery to remove a growth from his neck to halt the cancer. During the operation, a tumor the size of a racquetball was taken out, along with parts of his epiglottis, right and left pharyngeal wall, a neck muscle, and more than 40 lymph nodes. Adding to the traumatic experience, Sanders later underwent two rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments in an attempt to beat the disease.

It caused massive strain, not only on his body, but also his spirits. It was only through his faith in God and his desire to be around to see his 4-year old daughter grow up, that he was able to muster the strength to continue in his battle to survive, he said.

Nearly seven years after his diagnosis, Sanders has since retired from the Air Force and is currently training as an alternate competitor for the 2014 Warrior Games. Over time he has gained back much of his athletic prowess and strives toward an active lifestyle in spite of the limitations caused by his cancer.

These are the precious years he hardly dared to hope for when the cancer wracked his body and ate away at him bit by bit.

“I’d come home from chemo or radiation … I’d throw my guts up in the toilet and I couldn’t move,” Sanders said. “I crawled like a little baby and I’d be like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ you know? I was ready to die. I’d said my piece, I was ready. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.

“My wife would curl up with me and she would just sit there while I cried and she’d be OK crying with me, but it’s my little girl that would always come in…” Sanders lapsed into silence as the memory evidently took a toll. After muttering an apology, he paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “She’d stroke my head and she’d say, ‘daddy, it’s going to be OK.”

Thinking of his daughter, Sanders summoned his courage and spoke to the one person he knew could help him move forward. He began to pray.

“Lord, I don’t want to die yet. I need to see my little girl get married. I want to walk her down the aisle and give her to a Godly man, please!” And while he was in prayer, Sanders decided it couldn’t hurt to also ask for an item from his bucket list. “Lord, I’ve never seen the Northern Lights, maybe some day?”

Treatment progressed and in 2008, Sanders was given word that his body was cancer free. Recovery has been a slow process as the chemo and radiation caused collateral damage, which he continues to live with to this day. Looking at Sanders, he is athletic, positive and energetic. His side effects are not readily apparent.

“My injuries are internal, so many look at me and think I am fine,” he said. “Little do they know about my sleeping habits, my choking on food and my own saliva, the neuropathy that weakens my muscles in my arms, neck, toes … my teeth and jaw deterioration from the radiation, my fatigue from a ‘fried’ thyroid, and so on.”

Unwilling to let his illness stop him, Sanders continued his service in the Air Force. By 2009, he made senior master sergeant and was pleasantly surprised when he was given orders to Alaska, where he fulfilled his wish of seeing the Northern Lights.

He also took that time to get back into running, the sport he has loved for more than 30 years, since he first started racing track at age 16. He exercised this talent during the first years of the Warrior Games, a Paralympic-style event with athletes competing from each branch of the military.

“When I heard about the Warrior Games in 2010, I immediately put in my application to see if I would be accepted,” he said. “We didn't know if I would even be looked at, but the word on the street was that you didn't have to have combat-related injuries. Every Airman that had faced either being wounded, ill or injured, and was still recovering, could join this team.”

During the multi-service sporting event, Sanders was awarded a bronze medal in the 1500 meter run and won the recumbent cycle race. When he returned to the Warrior Games in 2012, he continued to showcase his competitive streak and won the silver in the recumbent competition and a bronze medal in the 1500 meter run.

“I hope I’m giving the young guns a little run for their money,” he said. “It’s been a great transition for me. At Scott Air Force Base in 2009, they voted me athlete of the year and I was pretty excited about that. It showed the Air Force that I’m back. And in 2010, to come out and try to compete and do well – it’s rewarding to see how it continues to progress because you never know what’s going to be thrown at you.”

Through the Air Force Wounded Warrior program, at the age of 51, Sanders took part in the first Air Force Trials event, through which athletes were selected to contend in this year’s Warrior and Invictus Games. After the competition, he was awarded an alternate slot. He is hoping he may still get a chance to participate, but as a veteran of the event, he said what is most important is to make sure those who have not experienced the Warrior Games get their chance.

“It really helps with the healing process in so many ways – encouragement, stress reduction, knowing you are still cared for and about, and being loved are only a few things that will be experienced,” he said about the games.

“There’s a point when you go through something, that you don’t know if you’re going to come back, or you feel you’re going to be different and so you don’t try to be different anymore. You want to try to be as normal as possible. I think once you realize that you’re in your new normal, and you’re with people who are the same, it’s a big deal.”

It is in this new normal that Sanders has begun to build his life. His chance of survival was nearly the same as a coin toss -- 50/50, and he is making the most out of his second chance. He is living out his prayer, watching his daughter grow up, while realizing the whole time just how precious each moment is.
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