What I Learned From My Skin Cancer Scare
Plus, a reason to avoid tanning beds that has nothing to do with cancer.
A vivid childhood memory of mine is watching my father undergo a series of surgeries on one spot on his forehead. Dad, a fair-skinned blue-eyed man of Celtic descent, had spent all his childhood summers on the beaches of New England, and in those far-off days no one knew how dangerous repeated sunburns could be for kids. The skin cancer on his face, which thankfully was the relatively benign basal cell type, had first appeared when he was in his mid-thirties. Four operations later (over a span of 15 years) the surgeons finally removed all the cancer leaving behind a very dramatic scar.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and I was diagnosed at age 45 with squamous cell cancer on my nose. This cancer happened despite my parents’ efforts, and later my own, to keep me protected in the sun. But nature won out: skin designed for the wet and cool British Isles is not best suited for the bright sunshine of the New World.
I was lucky that I noticed the scaly spot on my nose when it was still quite small. My doctor informed me that there’s not much skin on the bridge of your nose where my cancer was, and grafts in the area can be “quite disfiguring.” No wonder that since then I have never missed a six-month derm check-up! And I am lucky that the cancer has not recurred.
I suppose it isn’t surprising, given my history, that I look upon tanning beds with horror. An estimated 1 million people every day court cancer by getting themselves baked in those machines—a truly mind-boggling statistic. And according to the American Academy of Dermatology nearly 70% of the salon patrons are Caucasian girls and women, and nearly a third of white women ages 16 to 25 use a tanning bed each year.
I asked my derm if any of her patients still tan. She admitted that some did despite her warnings. Why would they do that? (She was candid with me as long as I agreed not to quote her by name.) “For the majority of people, vanity prevails over health,” she explained. “They think they look good with a tan. What I do now to convince them to stay away from tanning beds and use sun protection is talk about the wrinkles and skin discoloration that inevitably follow too much tanning.” Then she added something that has really stuck with me: “Everyone is invincible until they are not. Most people get wise after a cancer diagnosis.”
Don’t wait for the dreaded C-word to end up on your chart. Avoid tanning beds and urge others to do so too. The people who really need to get this message are teenage girls, who are particularly vulnerable to UV radiation (and particularly interested in improving their appearance). Scientific studies show that anyone who tries a tanning bed increases his or her risk of melanoma by 59%, and that risk increases with each use.
I also urge you to sign this petition calling for the ban of tanning beds for anyone under 18. This ban is already in place in some states. The American Academy of Dermatology goes further, opposing all indoor tanning for non-medical purposes. While that kind of universal prohibition seems out of reach at the moment, a ban on teenage use would be an important advance in public health.
Clare McHugh is the Editor of Health.