Lauren Beloff, 36, was diagnosed with melanoma at age 27 after more than two years of tanning nearly every other day. She was diagnosed with skin cancer again at age 31. Here’s why she now says she “learned her lesson” about sun safety.
I went tanning maybe twice in high school. My mom works as a nurse, and she was very angry I went. She even told me tanning can lead to skin cancer.
Once I went to college, it felt like everybody was going to the tanning salon. That look was everywhere. I won a gift certificate to a local tanning salon. After only a few sessions, I was “hooked” on looking tan. I liked the way I looked when I was tan. It felt like every time I went to the tanning salon, I liked it more and more.
I went literally every other day, probably for two and a half years. It sounds so bad, but it’s the truth.
The salon told me it was safer to tan than it was to lay out in the sun. I thought it kept my skin clear and gave me that “sun-kissed” look. I also spent many summers at the beach lathering on baby oil to get tan. I never thought I was truly damaging my skin or at risk for getting skin cancer. I even said the words, “It could never happen to me.”
In the summer of 2007, I spent a weekend at the beach in the Hamptons. Someone came up to me and pointed out a weird-looking spot on the edge of my bathing suit on my chest. It was a brown dot with a red squiggly line around it. I didn't know anything about skin cancer or anyone who had it at my age.
I went home after that weekend and showed my parents. My dad said, “That doesn’t look good,” and my mom urged me to go get it checked out. The doctor didn’t think it looked good either. He did a biopsy, and he told me I would need to come back to have it removed. I still didn’t think skin cancer would happen to me. I felt it wasn’t a big deal. So I went to the tanning salon when I left that appointment.
When the biopsy came back, I was diagnosed with melanoma. Then, I was scared out of my mind. About 48 hours later, I had it removed from my chest and was stitched up. The surgeon was able to get clear margins, so I didn’t need any additional treatment.
Then, in the summer of 2012, I found another spot on my face. I was the one who pointed it out to my dermatologist Samer Jaber, MD, a member of the American Academy of Dermatology. It was a tiny clear spot. Dr. Jaber suggested a biopsy due to my prior melanoma. A week later, the results came back and I had skin cancer. It turned out it went all the way down to the muscle in my face. It was the size of a pencil eraser. I had a procedure used for facial areas called Mohs surgery to remove it. That scared me even more; the cancer was coming back, and it was on my face!
After that, I became very careful with the sun. Today, I wear sun-reflective shirts. I make sure I have a hat on. I don’t lay out on the beach; I sit under the umbrella on vacation.
It was really hard for me at first. I had to change how I felt about my looks. Being pale became like an insecurity. But I learned to own it, and I became proud just like other people are proud of their tan. For a while, I tried bronzers to keep that sun-kissed look, but over the years I’ve just not cared as much. Even celebrities on social media these days don’t wear as much makeup; a more natural look is more popular now, and celebrities are even speaking about wearing sunscreen and protecting yourself in the sun.
One of my best friends also had melanoma. She was in remission for 13 years but it came back, and six months later she lost her life. To have that happen to her made me feel like, how can anyone go out in the sun now. When you see something like that happen, it has to be a wakeup call. I became even more protective of myself in the sun after that.
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I live in Hoboken, New Jersey, and the tanning salons here are insane! I have told Dr. Jaber there should be skin cancer awareness commercials during episodes of The Jersey Shore. I try to warn friends of mine who still go out on the beach or go to the tanning salon. I want to say to people, “Do you know what you’re doing to yourself?!” But I didn’t know either.
I’m not sure that the dangers of tanning reach those people in their 20s and early 30s who still don’t think it can happen to them. When people tell me it’s not going to happen to them, I say, “Well, it happened to me!” If skin cancer could happen to me, it could happen to anyone else.