HomeNewsArticle Display

Wounded warrior battles life, career, competition

Retired Senior Master Sgt. Mike Sanders enjoys a moment of rest April 10, 2014, during the Air Force Trials at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Sanders is a cancer survivor and an active participant in Air Force Wounded Warrior program. Sanders was told he was free of the disease in 2008 and has been using sports as part of his recovery process. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jette Carr)

Retired Senior Master Sgt. Mike Sanders enjoys a moment of rest April 10, 2014, during the Air Force Trials at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Sanders is a cancer survivor and an active participant in Air Force Wounded Warrior program. Sanders was told he was free of the disease in 2008 and has been using sports as part of his recovery process. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jette Carr)

Senior Master Sgt. Michael Sanders races to the finish line of the 10-kilometer recumbent bike race  for the inaugural Warrior Games May 13, 2010, at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Sergeant Sanders is one of some 200 disabled veterans participating in the Paralympic-style competition May 10 through 14. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

Senior Master Sgt. Michael Sanders races to the finish line of the 10-kilometer recumbent bike race for the inaugural Warrior Games May 13, 2010, at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Sergeant Sanders is one of some 200 disabled veterans participating in the Paralympic-style competition May 10 through 14. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios)

Master Sgt. Mike Sanders poses with his family Oct. 30, 2009, in Shiloh, Ill.  In 2007, Sanders was diagnosed with stage IV cancer.  He said it was through the support and love his family provided that he found the strength to fight for his life.  He has been cancer free since 2008.  (Courtesy photo/Mike Sanders)

Master Sgt. Mike Sanders poses with his family Oct. 30, 2009, in Shiloh, Ill. In 2007, Sanders was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. He said it was through the support and love his family provided that he found the strength to fight for his life. He has been cancer free since 2008. (Courtesy photo/Mike Sanders)

Senior Master Sgt. Mike Sanders (left) and Maj. Scott Bullis raise their hands as they cross the finish line during the recumbent cycling event of Warrior Games 2012 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 1, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Val Gempis)

Senior Master Sgt. Mike Sanders (left) and Maj. Scott Bullis raise their hands as they cross the finish line during the recumbent cycling event of Warrior Games 2012 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 1, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Val Gempis)

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.

Engage

Twitter
Twitter
The 786th Civil Engineer Squadron Explosive Ordnance Disposal team trained using an F6 Alpha EOD robot to disarm a… https://t.co/6zwlp7MQOD
Twitter
In this episode of Inside AFIMSC, - Maj Gen Wilcox holds the center’s first virtual Commander’s Call, - Alpha Warr… https://t.co/BAmtJQX9Ua
Twitter
RT @HQAirUniversity: In our forth video of a 5-part series, AU's Director of Strategic Leadership Communication, discusses his 4 C’s of lea…
Twitter
RT @NASA: Docking confirmed! @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug officially docked to the @Space_Station at 10:16am ET: https://t.co/hCM4UvbwjR
Twitter
RT @NASA_TDRS: Dragon has docked! Crewed Dragon, with @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug on board, are connected to @Space_Station, with @NASA’s…
Twitter
Rise and shine! A KC-46 Pegasus at Altus AFB as the 97th Air Mobility Wing prepares to conduct a severe weather e… https://t.co/QBT5nuXMqx
Twitter
RT @AETCommand: An amazing story of resilience & grit sure to inspire you! Airman Shannon Busch triumphed over incredible odds to graduate…
Twitter
.@HQAirUniversity's Holm Center Chaplain's thoughts on distance. #ReadyAF #COVID19 #Resilient https://t.co/svDFNqIqNX
Twitter
U.S. Air Force Capt. Kristoffer Wiese, 480th Fighter Squadron pilot, holds his F-16 Fighting Falcon in position whi… https://t.co/Yb1RX4fUKn
Twitter
RT @1stAF: .@1stAF's #AFRCC assisted with the #rescue of an injured person from an ATV accident. #RescueAirmen from the #58thRQS and #66thR
Twitter
Multinational, multiservice joint integration training of Agile Combat Employment concepts between the USAF,… https://t.co/Jdi2BKcwlQ
Twitter
We’re back. 🇺🇸 #AimHigh https://t.co/FUVpIOM06K
Twitter
RT @NASAKennedy: After a successful launch at 3:22 p.m. ET, @SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft with @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug onboard is…
Twitter
RT @AF_SBIR_STTR: During a @T_W_Enterprise event, Salvo Technologies demonstrated how their technology could benefit the warfighter by deve…
Twitter
RT @NASA: LIVE NOW: #LaunchAmerica, Take 2. 🎬 Watch as @NASA_Astronauts fly to the @Space_Station from U.S. soil for the first time in nine…
Twitter
#SafetyFirst! @22ARW shows how to perform motorcycle safety. #ReadyAF https://t.co/VEEmq4CkVm
Twitter
Taking care of our Airmen! #ReadyAF #AimHigh https://t.co/6SrkNxXoUv
Twitter
RT @CitizenAirman: The June 2020 issue of Citizen Airman Magazine is online now! - https://t.co/wScm3DZIFq #ReserveReady #ReserveResilient
Facebook
The newest Air Force Podcast recently dropped. Listen to a small snippet of CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright talk with Staff Sgt. New about resiliency. Listen to the entire podcast on Youtube: https://go.usa.gov/xpnAD or Subscribe to The Air Force Podcast on iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/podcast/the-air-force-podcast/id1264107694?mt=2
Facebook
Our mantra, "Always ready!" It's the spirit we fly by! #B2Tuesday
Facebook
Need some motivation to get your week started off right? Listen as CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright weighs in...
Facebook
The U.S. Air Force Academy gives its cadets some unique opportunities. Ride along one of this opportunities.
Facebook
A United States Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refuels an F-22 Raptor over northern Iraq, Nov. 6, 2019. U.S. Central Command operations deter adversaries and demonstrate support for allies and partners in the region. (Video by Staff Sgt. Daniel Snider)
Facebook
Although the Silver Star is the third-highest military medal, it's not given often. Today, TSgt Cody Smith was the 49th Special Tactics Airman to receive this medal since Sept. 11th, 2001. Read more of TSgt Smith's amazing story: https://www.airforcespecialtactics.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2024815/special-tactics-airman-battled-through-injuries-awarded-silver-star/fbclid/IwAR2LZWwx1VHdTnQe39rIEBOuJS_0JvMQBBGt7I-E6zsxxn-Lx9387yu43Bc/ Cannon Air Force Base Air Force Special Operations Command United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)
Facebook
Tune in as our Air Force musicians along with other military musicians are awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Facebook
Like Us
Twitter
1,229,732
Follow Us