Over the past 10 years, there has been more awareness surrounding the dangers of sun exposure and the damage that occurs over time. Essentially everyone has some understanding that sunburns and tanning can cause skin cancer. Less known, however, are the staggering statistics regarding melanoma and the rapid rise in the diagnosis of this potentially deadly skin cancer.
Compared to 40 years ago, women ages 18 to 39 are now eight times more likely to be diagnosed with this potentially deadly skin cancer. (1)
The rise in skin cancer rates happens to coincide with the growth of indoor tanning, which was first introduced in the U.S. in the late 1970s. (4)
With young women being the predominant users of indoor tanning, I grew curious about the level of understanding this group has about skin cancer and the risks associated with their activities. In the pursuit of knowledge, I decided to interview several young women between the ages of 18 and 26. I began each conversation asking them what they knew about skin cancer and what they thought their chances were in developing skin cancer (specifically, melanoma). Here is a sample of my findings…
Case Study #1: Jessica
What did Jessica know?
Jessica is a 19-year-old college sophomore who knew sun exposure was not healthy and that using a tanning bed was even worse. She believed based on her current lifestyle that she was likely to incur some form of skin cancer in her late 40s or 50s. Despite that knowledge, Jessica continues to use a tanning bed. When asked why, it came down to vanity and peer pressure. “I feel prettier when I’m tan, and my friends all do it, so I feel odd if I am pale after spring break.”
What didn’t she know?
Jessica did not know that she was 75 percent more likely to develop melanoma because she started using tanning beds before the age of 35. (3)
Case Study #2: Tabitha
What did Tabitha know?
Tabitha is a 22-year-old student with a family history of skin cancer. She was able to articulate sun exposure has become an even greater danger due to the changes in the ozone layer. She also understood that her desire to be tan coupled with her family history increases her risk. Like Jessica, Tabitha felt more attractive when she was tan. She also acknowledged that she would probably be diagnosed with skin cancer, suspecting it would most likely occur in her early 30s.
What didn’t she know?
Tabitha did not know that before she even entered a tanning bed or had a sunburn her risk of melanoma was already set at 50 percent because of her family history. (1)
Case Study #3: Brianne
What did Brianne know?
Brianne, 25, echoed the rest of the group with general knowledge. “There are different kinds of skin cancer, and some of them you can die from.”
What didn’t she know?
Every 52 minutes a person dies of melanoma (2)
Conclusions: What I Learned
Again and again, I spoke with women who seemed to understand the risks of developing skin cancer yet continued to tan. I was shocked at their level of knowledge and lack of concern.
On a positive note, everyone interviewed knew there was a significant survival rate if melanoma was found early. However, they admitted they did not check their skin regularly.
The estimated 5-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 98 percent in the U.S. (2)
Conclusions: What They Learned
At the end of our conversations, I gave them a list of facts about their increased chances of developing melanoma and at an early age. They heard about Jodi, who spent her summers as a lifeguard and loved to swim. She had started college and was looking forward to becoming a teacher when she graduated. Diagnosed with melanoma at 19, she died at 22.
The conversation became a bit more sobering hearing some of the statistics and learning about a peer that could easily be any one of the young ladies in the room. The quest to feel beautiful will never change, but I left them with this question: When did the skin you were born with stop being beautiful?
2. Cancer Facts and Figures 2016. American Cancer Society.http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@research/documents/document/acspc-047079.pdf.
3.The International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group. The association of use of sunbeds with cutaneous malignant melanoma and other skin cancers: a systematic review. Int J Canc 2006; 120:1116-1122.
4.Demierre MF. Time for the national legislation of indoor tanning to protect minors. Arch Dermatol 2003; 139:520-4.