Almost every hour of the day, people can be seen in tanning salons. And every hour of the day, one American dies from melanoma.
While the incidence of many common cancers is falling, melanoma is on the rise – especially among young adults and adolescents.
“We’re seeing the biggest increase in melanoma in young women, ages 20 to 30, which is, we think, related to the behavior of going to tanning facilities,” said Dr. Keeter Sechrist, a local dermatologist.
Brittany Cicala knows all about it. A former Washington Redskins cheerleader and 2006 Miss Maryland, she was diagnosed with melanoma in 2005, as a 19-year-old nursing student. Immediately, she knew how she got it, and she knew she had only herself to blame.
“My first reaction, as well as being shocked, was, ‘I can’t believe I did this to myself,’” said Cicala, of Chesapeake Beach, Md. “It was my choice to go to the tanning bed, even though my mom and a lot of my friends kept telling me it’s not safe, you shouldn’t do that, there’s so many risks, why would you take that risk. So really just the internal guilt of saying I did this to myself. I gave myself cancer.”
Melanoma is a form of skin cancer that occurs in melanocytes, the cells that determine pigmentation. Although the primary site of melanocytes is in the skin, they can also be found on the eyes, so melanoma can develop there as well.
When people are exposed to ultraviolet radiation, melanocytes can grow atypically and become cancerous.
The two main sources of ultraviolet exposure are tanning beds and the sun. Overexposure is detrimental to all people, even those with naturally dark skin.
Cicala said she went to a tanning salon for a single event, but it soon became a habit. “When I was 17, I was getting ready for prom like most teenagers are, and I had purchased a white prom dress and thought that the quick and easy way for me to get a tan was to go to a tanning salon. I started out at about eight minutes about once or twice a week, and then slowly progressed in time and amount of time that I went during the week, and at the end of two years I was going about five times a week, 20 to 25 minutes every time I went,” she explained.
“It’s such an addiction – the process of going and of having tan skin and never thinking that you’re dark enough,” she said.
In 2005, Cicala went to the dermatologist at the urging of her mother. “My mom had noticed this mole on my back and kept bugging me to go. I finally went to the doctor just to get her off my back from telling me to keep going and going, and I walked into the doctor’s office and walked out with cancer.”
She was lucky – her cancer was found early. She had the mole and some lymph nodes surgically removed and has no ill effects today, though she wears sunscreen every day and stays covered whenever she’s in sunlight.
“The cure for melanoma is, like with many cancers, early detection. So if you catch it very, very early and remove it surgically, you can cure it. If you don’t, the treatments are not often very effective,” Sechrist said.
While genetics seems to play a role, everyone can benefit from closely examining their skin – and not just areas exposed to the sun.
“Generally it is something that is either an existing mole that is changing shape, size, color or sensation or it’s a new mole that is growing, that someone has not seen before,” said Sechrist.
Early detection is critical, because melanoma is aggressive and can spread quickly to other parts of the body.
“Oftentimes as the disease progresses, it will go to the lungs, it will go to the spleen, it will go to the spine, it will go to the liver. Ultimately, it will go to your brain,” said Anita Day, founder of Outrun the Sun, a nonprofit group based in Indianapolis that is dedicated to melanoma education and support for survivors.
Doctors and experts agree: Prevention, by taking steps to protect skin from ultraviolet light, is the best way to avoid skin cancer. Day recommends wearing long-sleeve shirts, pants, wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and sunscreen for any time spent in the sun.
But what of the bronze look that so many people crave?
“Sunless tanners are 100 percent safe, and they are a quick and easy way to get tan skin,” said Cicala, who has tried most of the products on the market. Her favorite is one that is applied in the shower with a microfiber towel.
Those steps seem simple in the face of this deadly disease. Day helped found Outrun the Sun in 2004 after her father and a friend died of melanoma. She knew the grief of survivors and wanted to provide an outlet for families who have experienced a death through melanoma.
“We saw a huge need, and we said someone has to be a voice. Someone has to bring awareness. Someone has to help support research. Someone has to wave the flag for prevention and early detection, and if no one else does it, it needs to be us,” she said.
In 2005, Outrun the Sun established a 5-mile summertime evening run to raise funds for melanoma research. Many people help with the event, including youth who have lost loved ones to the disease.
Will Patton, 10, of Carmel, lost his father to melanoma seven years ago and has volunteered with his mother in Outrun the Sun events.
“It’s helped me like come through the hard times since my dad died,” he explained.
Sam Elliot, 10, also of Carmel, started helping out in 2006 after the death of a family friend. He made drawings and sold them, originally charging $2 each. He’s raised $4,000 in all.
He said he got the idea after overhearing two girls talk about their plans to raise money for Riley Hospital for Children.
“For some reason, I got jealous. I went home and told my mom that I wanted to do something to get money. First, I asked for a lemonade stand. Then, I saw my dad crying and that’s when I got the idea,” he said.
Sam said he plans to create Christmas cards to raise additional funds for melanoma research.
The next Outrun the Sun run is June 5, 2010, at Fort Benjamin Harrison. For more information, visit www.outrunthesun.org.
Copyright 2009 Y-Press