My world nearly turned upside down when I was only 30 years old. It was supposed to be a routine doctor visit to remove a mole. A biopsy showed the mole was melanoma — the most serious form of skin cancer. In fact, it was stage 2B. Cancer is not a word anyone wants to hear.
While melanoma accounts for only 1 percent of skin cancer cases, it causes most of skin cancer deaths. I had two surgeries and a year of chemotherapy to treat the cancer. For now, it’s gone.
What haunts me — and the reason I’m now a volunteer advocate with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network — is knowing the cancer could have been prevented. Research shows that indoor tanning use before the age of 35 increases melanoma risk by 59 percent. The World Health Organization has classified ultraviolet (UV) indoor tanning devices as carcinogenic to humans at a level similar to other carcinogens such as tobacco, benzene and asbestos.
Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. and rates have been rising for the past 30 years. And Montana has some of the highest melanoma rates in the country! The current increase in melanoma in adults is the result of exposure to UV radiation starting in childhood and young adult years. Therefore, preventing exposure to UV radiation as early as possible in a person’s life is critical.
My biopsy was sent to the Mayo Clinic for testing, which determined there was likely no genetic link to cancer. In other words, the melanoma was more than likely a result of my use of tanning beds in high school. This is why I’m passionately speaking out in support of Senate Bill 21, which would restrict minors from using tanning beds. It could literally save lives.
The most recent data indicates that one in nine high school girls uses a tanning device, with numbers increasing to one in six by their senior year. I was one of those young girls getting into tanning beds on an almost daily basis as a sure-fire way to get the ultimate tan. Sun burns were frequent, but I shrugged them off as the price to pay for getting a bronze glow. I fell for the myth that tanning devices were safer than the sun. Little did I know, I wasn’t just damaging my skin, I was setting myself up for a life-threatening cancer.
It has been five years since chemotherapy. I am screened every six months by my dermatologist for melanoma and other skin anomalies. I also require a yearly CT scan. Some cancers can be prevented. Skin cancer is one of them.
Let’s do what we can to protect young people from skin cancer — just like we restrict the sale of tobacco to minors to prevent cancer later in life. I strongly urge you to contact your state senator and ask them to help pass this common-sense legislation. Montana should join the list of 17 states already taking action by prohibiting minors from using tanning beds.