One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as a cancer survivor is to take care of my skin. Before my diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2002, I would work on my tan throughout the summer by slathering on tanning oil and laying out in the sun for hours. I always got very dark and rarely burned, so I figured it was “safe” for me to skip the sunscreen. And as embarrassing as it is to admit, I used to frequent tanning beds in the fall and winter to keep my summer tan alive. I would also go tanning before vacations because I was a believer in the “base tan myth” and thought “I’ll never get skin cancer, it won’t happen to me.” If I knew then how terrible it was to experience cancer firsthand, I would have protected my skin and stayed out of the sun – and out of tanning beds – as a young teen.
On May 3, I attended the Raising Skin Cancer Awareness and the Dangers of Indoor Tanning Congressional Briefing at the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center. The Briefing highlighted the introduction of the Tanning Bed Cancer Control Act (TBBCA), which calls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to re-examine the classification of indoor tanning beds. Congressman Charlie Dent (R – PA), a sponsor of the TBBCA, argues that tanning beds should have warning labels just like cigarettes, as UV radiation is a carcinogen just like tobacco and asbestos. Equating indoor tanning to smoking, Congressman Dent said, “You know the risks before you light up [a cigarette], so you should know the risks before you lie down [in a tanning bed].”
The closing speaker at the Briefing was Dr. Jessica Lilley, a young pediatrician from Tennessee who is a melanoma survivor and former indoor tanner. Dr. Lilley stressed that tanning is, unfortunately, a normalized and rationalized behavior for teenage girls and young women, namely caucasians between the ages of 14-22. According to the American Academy of Dermatology “2011 Indoor Tanning: Teen and Young Women” survey, this demographic knows that tanning bed use can cause cancer (86.3%), but less than half report that they plan to stop using tanning beds in the future. These statistics are frightening, as skin cancer incidence in women age 15 – 39 is steadily growing – yet is the most preventable.
After the Briefing, the physicians offered free skin cancer screening as well as Reveal scans to show underlying skin damage from UV rays. Many attendees opted for the “clothes-on” exam, but I opted for a full-body check in a private room. After examining my arms, legs, face, back, and torso, the doctor looked at underarms, the bottoms of my feet, and under my breasts. After I dressed, I had a Reveal Imager scan. While facial scans are not cancer screening tools, they are unique ways to view underlying sun damage on various areas of your face. My Reveal scan printout shocked me a little: the areas of my face with the most sun and vascular damage weren’t my cheeks and nose as I expected, but my eyelids and upper lip. The scan made me more aware of the sun damage on my face, and where I need to apply sunscreen in the future.
Staying out of the sun is easier said than done. I love beach vacations, spend a great deal of time outside, and thoroughly enjoy a summer tan. I’ve had to get creative to achieve the same tanned look without damaging my skin, as I have an elevated risk of skin cancer due to my chemotherapy treatment. If I want a healthy glow in the cooler seasons or for an upcoming event, I get a spray tan or use self-tanning creams. I make sure my everyday makeup – face creams, powders, and lipstick – contains SPF 30.
When I spend time in the sun, I wear sunscreen that contains at least SPF 30, UVA and UVB protection, and reapply every two hours. I also abide by the American Academy of Dermatology “shot glass rule” to ensure I use at least an ounce of sunscreen in one application. And like I did at the Congressional Briefing, I get screened. Find free skin cancer screening near you and visit the Prevent Cancer Foundation Save Your Skin website to learn more about what you can do to prevent skin cancer.