Turning a Cancer Diagnosis into Life-Affirming Giving

Friends - U Magazine Winter 2024
Dr. Deborah Wong (left) with Jimmy and Julie Sanders, founders of Jimmy Swims.
Dr. Deborah Wong (left) with Jimmy and Julie Sanders, founders of Jimmy Swims. (Photo by Kyle Miyamoto | UCLA Health)

Four years ago, Jimmy Sanders challenged himself to swim across Lake Arrowhead. Diagnosed in 2012 with stage 4 papillary thyroid cancer, by 2014 his cancer had metastasized to his lungs and, over the next few years, he went through three rounds of radioactive iodine therapy. In 2020, he was preparing for a grueling fourth round of the therapy and wanted a way to strengthen his body for the treatment. Sanders, now 67, was a competitive swimmer in his youth and decided the swim was “just something I needed to do,” he said. 

Sanders and his wife, Julie, who first met as teens at a Culver City swim club and have a second home in Lake Arrowhead, approached the Arrowhead Lake Association in 2020 to obtain permission to swim across the lake and make the swim a fundraiser for UCLA cancer research. The association agreed, and the couple contacted the UCLA Health Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation (JCCF). After hearing of the plan, JCCF helped Sanders and his wife create a donor website for “Jimmy Swims.” 

That first year, Sanders swam alone, with his wife nearby in a patrol boat and a few friends on paddleboards. “Although I had never done this before, I had a feeling that this was more than just for me,” he said. 

What began as a personal goal has “taken on a life of its own,” said Sanders, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from UCLA. Each year, the swim has gained more support from the community. The 2023 annual fundraiser, held on September 4, included more than 100 participants, including swimmers, paddleboarders and kayakers — ranging from 10 to 84 years of age — and brought in more than $168,000 for the UCLA JCCF. Sanders’s UCLA oncologist, Dr. Deborah J. Wong (RES ’09, FEL ’13), and her husband brought their daughter and two sons, both of whom swam with their mom. Olympic gold medalist swimmer Kaitlin Sandeno participated with her sister, a breast cancer survivor and a former UCLA Health Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (JCCC) patient. To date, the Sanderses have raised close to $350,000 for cancer research. 

Right before the 2023 swim, Sanders was hospitalized and was advised to undergo radiation therapy; he had his first treatment the day before the swim. Motivated by the outpouring of support, he wanted to make sure he attended, although he was unsure he would be able to join in. He watched as participants entered the water and felt compelled to swim. “I still don’t know what got me from point A to point B, but when I swam, there was this serenity and calmness. Everything stood still, and I saw all these people supporting Jimmy Swims. How could I not?” he asked. “I put my head down and kept on swimming, thinking not only of the accomplishment, but also what it would and could mean. The participants inspire me, and I wanted to inspire people to keep going, to not give up and keep fighting. If there’s a will, there’s a way.” 

Proceeds from the annual event help fund research conducted by Dr. Wong and Dr. Christiaan Schiepers (FEL ’90) to advance therapies at the JCCC for head and neck cancers, including metastatic thyroid cancer. “We thought you needed millions of dollars to do something like this, to make a difference,” Julie Sanders said. “It was surprising and made our hearts full to know that just $25,000 can make a huge difference.” 

Sanders noted that when he and his wife started the event, it was a way to recognize and show gratitude to his own team of doctors at UCLA, and to shine a light on cancer, especially thyroid cancer, which does not receive a lot of attention. “But raising money that’s substantial and making an impact on future generations, it’s something that we would have never imagined,” Sanders said. “The ability to give back is our motivation to move forward. It means a lot emotionally. It means the world actually.”  

Marina Dundjerski is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. 

For more information, contact Margaret Steele at: 310-968-0734