Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Price of a Tan

I can still remember the thick air of disdain that oozed from her email -

"I don't go tanning anymore, Danielle! Are you happy? You convinced me that it's dangerous. After listening to you (and Natalie) talk about it for the past four years I have realized that it's dangerous, and so I only use sunless tanning foams now. I hope that makes you happy. Love, Erika."

I can also remember the profound sense of relief (and, yes, satisfaction) that I felt knowing that one of my close friends/former pageant girls made the decision--for herself--to discontinue the use of tanning beds. Erika has known about the dangers of tanning for years now. She has heard our friend Natalie, a former Miss Utah, talk about it many times. She has heard me "preach" about it almost incessantly. Yet, it was a decision that she had to make. "I finally realize that it's just not worth the risk," she says. "So, I use the sunless tanners now instead."

Indeed, tanning comes with a heavy price. Whoever coined the phrase beauty is pain, clearly never met anyone who has battled melanoma--the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Let me introduce you to several women who, like many young women today had a long-standing love affair with the sun and tanning beds, have battled malignant melanoma.

The melanoma warrior who stands out most in my mind is Robin Lawrence. As a farmer's daughter, she spent many days out in sun working the fields growing up in Evansville, Indiana. As a teenager, Robin was a fan of using Baby Oil and iodine to achieve a darker, crisper shade of brown. "I seized every opportunity to be in the sun and work on my tan," she says. Then, Robin took an interest in body building. "A tan was an important part of professional body building," Robin says. So, she began frequenting tanning beds throughout her 20s. That is, until she was diagnosed with melanoma. Since March 2002, Robin has had nearly 200 suspicious moles and lesions removed from her skin and has battled malignant melanoma five times. "Every day, I live in fear that the next one is going to get me [...] I worry that I won't see my daughter graduate from high school. It's that constant fear that motivates me to teach other young people about the very real dangers of tanning and melanoma," she says. (Read more about Robin's story in ONLY SKIN DEEP? An Essential Guide to Effective Skin Cancer Programs and Resources).

Like Robin, Shonda Shilling (pictured above) the wife of baseball star Curt Shilling and a young mother of four, was also a fan of "soaking up the almost unfiltered rays of the Arizona sun." Since January 1999, Shonda has six melanomas removed. "I had told myself very early on that people DO DIE from this, but grasping that was much harder since this was a personal struggle," Shonda says. "I [have] received letter upon letter from people around the world that had fought this [disease] horribly. Since my original diagnosis I have had two Stage II melanomas, and four melanoma incitus removed from my back, chest, legs and arms in five different surgeries. I also became aware that Arizona has the highest melanoma rate in this U.S." As such, Shonda has now been a prominent figure in the skin cancer community, teaching youngsters about sun safety.

And there is Brittany Lietz, Miss Maryland 2006, who was first diagnosed with melanoma at the age of 20. "I have a white scar that runs across the back of my right rib cage that reminds me," Brittany says. "I want to warn others my age that the price of a tan is too high when you put yourself in harm's way." Since Brittany's initial diagnosis with melanoma a couple of years ago, she has had more than 20 suspicious moles removed. "To me, being tan is not worth losing my life over," she said. "I'm going to be pale and that's who I am," she says. "The price of a tan is just too high."

Fortunately, these three women won their battle with the "Black Tumor." Yet, many others have been taken from us. There is Charlie Guild, Colette Coyne, and Jaime Regen Rea - all in their 20s when melanoma robbed them of their bright futures. And there is Eric Johnson, (my friend Natalie's brother), who, at age 21, passed away just two months after his initial diagnosis. Eric had just returned home from serving a mission for his church when he was diagnosed with melanoma. And he had a full four-year college scholarship waiting for him. "He didn't even have a chance to fight", Natalie says. (You can also read more about Natalie in my book).

Every hour (68-minutes), melanoma takes another person -- a friend, a brother, a mother. This both baffles me and disturbs me greatly. While there are various deadly diseases that we can do very little to prevent, melanoma is largely preventable. It is irresponsible for us to assume that the use of tanning beds does not pose a very real and serious threat to people, especially our young adults; to say that the tanning is not dangerous when it emits ultraviolet radiation which is a known carcinogen is to say that melanoma is not a serious health concern. And if melanoma is not a serious health concern, then why does it kill more women ages 20-39 in America than any other disease? Why does melanoma kill about 24 people a day here in the U.S.?

Tanning is a dangerous. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation is linked to an increased risk for melanoma. That said, if we can prevent 90-95% of the melanomas diagnosed than I think we have a responsibility - not to mention an obligation - to protect people from it. Melanoma is deadly, but it is preventable. So, let us protect people, particularly our young adults, from it. As the Hippocratic oath states, we have an obligation to do no harm. Thusly, if we can eliminate (or reduce) danger to save a life then we, as humans, ought to...

After all, as Brittany said, the price is simply too high. Being a 20-something woman myself - every time I hear of another 20-something dying, it makes me wonder is a tan to die for? And I quickly realize that the answer is a reverberating NO!

* The photo above is used with permission of the SHADE Foundation and Glamor Magazine


Anonymous said...

I just posted about sunscreen on my blog today. I think people need to know all they can about the issues in order to make their decisions. While I must admit to enjoying having a nice golden tan, I too must add my vote for "pasty white" over skin cancer. My mother used to sunbathe at every opportunity (even when she was on meds that made her far more susceptible and clearly stated that she should stay out of the sun!!) and she had melanoma a few years ago. Thankfully it was caught in time. Even more thankfully she has smartened up about sunbathing.



Danielle said...

Thanks, Shannon, for helping spread the word about the dangers of tanning via your Blog.

It is difficult to squelch our desire to be bronze, especially when the media is saturated with actresses sporting golden tans; however, we all know the perils associated with tanning. Fortunately, there are actresses such as Nicole Kidman who show us that natural, healthy skin can be and IS beautiful.

When my co-founder and I were doing pageants, we occasionally used sunless tanning foams and we continue to encourage people to use those if they insist on having a "tan look".

At any rate, I'm soooo glad that your mother's melanoma was diagnosed in its early stages and that she is now doing well.

Take Care,