Friday, September 18, 2009

The M-Word: Tanning’s Dirty Little Secret

The M-Word: Tanning’s Dirty Little Secret
By Body & Soul member Andrea

Which woman likes to have that sun-kissed summer time glow?
Me, I do!

Which woman lies in a tanning bed, and actually enjoys it, to get that glow?
Me, I do!

Which woman has Melanoma skin cancer?
Me, I do! OH, wait a minute…..

I should start by saying that I was a summer beach bum as a child; lying out at the pool, using baby oil to burn, peel, burn, then tan. I remember sunburns when I was so red and in so much pain I could not move for days and my Nana would use vinegar rags to “pull the sting and heat” out of my skin. I continued this ritual/habit each summer until I found the “safe alternative” in 1988.

My love affair with tanning beds started in the spring of 1988. I had just been asked to the junior prom and pleaded “Mom, you have to let me get a tan for the prom! But Mom, you tan all the time and all my friends are doing it!” “OK, go tan”, she said and I did just that, off and on for the next 20 years. My mother has beautiful deep-olive Italian skin; I inherited my father’s very pale German skin. Well, I was going to remedy that!

This continued into my college years. I was having an acne problem and went to a dermatologist for the first time. It was summer, and I was wearing a tank top and shorts. I was there for some Retin-A for the breakouts, but he saw more when he looked at my shoulder. Did I mention I was so brazen that I walked in there with a glowing tan? Well, a full body scan later I was set up for another appointment for some skin patch removals. I walked out of that next appointment with five areas on my back and stomach removed, each of them needing two to six stitches. I was lucky, they all came back clean.

Three years later, after I got sick and tired of dodging the reminder postcards and calls every six months, I returned for a check-up. This time he saw my tan and yelled at me; and I mean yelled! “Why do I bother to try to cure you if you are just going to keep trying to kill yourself!” Now, I don’t think his yelling at a patient was the most productive. In fact, it gave me more of an “I’ll show you attitude”, but in hindsight, I can’t say he was wrong. (He wasn’t thrilled with the two new tattoos either, but that is another story)

This time, two areas were removed and I got a call…the one on my shoulder wasn’t normal and they were going to have to do another surgery. Thankfully, the second surgery was all that was needed and I was good to go.

I didn’t see another dermatologist for almost 10 years. And I actually went years without tanning during this time – well, almost. I would just go in the summer months or for special occasions. That is almost funny in itself since it would take me months to build a tan and then I would fade very quickly, so a “special occasion” would mean 4-5 months of tanning. BUT, I wasn’t one of those people who joined the monthly tanning clubs and tanned all year long, so I didn’t have a problem. Oh, it is fun to justify bad habits to ourselves, isn’t it?

I started tanning again in the spring of 2008, for no particular reason, I just felt like it. Then autumn came around, when I usually stop. However, I realized my class reunion is in the summer of 2009 and I didn’t want to start the whole base tan again, so what did I do? Well, I joined a monthly tanning club, of course! And I’ll let you in on a secret…I loved it! I loved lying in those beds; I found it relaxing. I would also think of it as a reward. I would go to the gym after work and since I worked hard there I would reward myself by stopping at the tanning salon.

Now, please allow me to touch base about these salons for a moment. They are in the business to make money, not to worry about your health. If you have to sign a two-page waiver to do any “recreational activity”, then there is probably a problem. Also, I love that they have signs posted all over from “doctors” saying they prefer this way of controlled tanning, as it is so much safer. Let me say here now and loudly… I KNEW the risks. I thought about it every single time I climbed in those beds. I will not be a hypocrite and after the fact say but I didn’t realize….of course, I KNEW! I just thought it wouldn’t happen to me, or I was in denial – take your pick.

So now I was tanning almost every day, or certainly every other day, because I couldn’t let it fade after all this hard work and money! Sometime that April, I noticed a birthmark on my side had turned darker. I had actually noticed it about six months earlier but kept ignoring it. So, I called to make an appointment with a new dermatologist and found out that they could see me in December of 2008. Keep in mind, I was calling in April. I booked the appointment and kept on tanning.

In I went and lucky me, I found a dermatologist who is SO adamantly against tanning beds that he has even testified before the Supreme Court about it! He didn’t yell but very sternly informed me the tanning needs to stop. The appointment consisted of a full body scan, excising two small areas and setting up an appointment for three more extensive areas to be removed.

I’ll share this next part with you to drive my point home about the level of my denial and addiction. A few days later, on my way home from getting the stitches removed from the two small areas, guess where I stopped? Yup, the tanning salon… well, it WAS on the way!

Weeks later, I went in for the next set of surgeries, during which he removed two areas from my side, one from my back and then, at the last minute said “I really want to look at that one on the underside of your right breast again.” Then he says, “I know you’re not going to like this, but I really think we should remove that little birthmark to be safe.” Well, I’m lying there all exposed and thought to myself “what am I going to do? Argue? “Go ahead,” I said. By the way, I was awake for all this….they numbed EACH area with several needle sticks, which meant that I could still feel the cutting, hear my skin being cut away and the stitching-up process is not fun. Lying there I was thinking, it is not worth it, but I still did not call to cancel my membership… Denial.

Two weeks later I went in for the stitches to be removed…more pain and no biopsy results yet. The next day I was sitting at my desk at work when my phone rang, the caller ID showed “Name of Dermatology Practice”. I picked up the phone and heard, “Andrea, this is Dr. B.” My heart fell to the floor…I think we all know a doctor does not call to simply say all is ok.

He informed me that every single sample had come back abnormal, so it was good we removed them BUT the one on the underside of my breast was melanoma, luckily only Stage One. He continued on for several minutes, and to be honest, I’m not sure what was said because all I heard was MELANOMA ringing in my head. I do remember hearing radiation and chemotherapy but not to worry about that YET. YET?!?!

After hanging up, I sat for a few minutes, stunned, and then I burst into tears. What the hell had I done to myself??? And for what? Vanity?!? It wasn’t bad enough that I looked like a patchwork quilt because of all the little surgeries…NO, I had to push it to the point of now losing a chunk of my breast. I could only thank the heavens it was on a chunk of my face.

On my way home that night, I stopped to cancel my tanning membership. When the girl asked why, I said “I have skin cancer.” She blurted out “Well, you signed a form.” I received a call the next day from the owner expressing that he was sorry but basically wanting to make sure I wasn’t going to sue them. Not that I could… because I signed a form he kindly reminded me! What does that tell you?!?

My dermatologist turned me over to a wonderful surgeon who believed in being very aggressive and I am glad she did. I am the poster child for being lucky and early detection. They were able to get a “clean area” with this second surgery - but barely. It had spread wider and deeper than they originally suspected and had I waited another year or two, there is no telling how far it might have gone. She used the phrase “Someone was looking out for you.” And remember, this was not even a mark I had been concerned about; Dr. B. spotted it.

I now have to go every three months, for the next five years, for a full scan, as I am now considered a high-risk patient for reoccurrence and new areas turning cancerous. Nivea’s Sun-Kissed lotion is my new best friend and I just bought sunscreen for the first time in my life.

Tanning really does become an addiction for some. In fact, my own mother still tans!
Last weekend was a very warm weekend here, and as I was running errands, I walked past a tanning salon that had their doors open. For an instant, I stopped, because I smelled that familiar smell…you know, coconut and burning flesh, and I had missed it.

But no vanity is worth ever hearing that “M” word again and worrying for weeks about the test results. I never again want to have to call my big, strong, tough-guy father and hear him choke up over the phone at the news his daughter just gave him. Not when it is something I can try to prevent and control.

Knowing in large part that I did this to myself is what bothers me the most. But I choose to look ahead and try to help people avoid a similar or even worse fate. Melanoma is one of the hardest cancers to cure but yet one of the most preventable!! Even at Stage One, roughly 15 out of 100 patients will die in five years because of reoccurrence. Armed with this knowledge and my experiences…it is fake not bake for me from now on!

Andrea is a member of Body & Soul Fitness. I asked if she would write down her experience so we could spread the word about the dangers of tanning. If you would like to contact Andrea for more information, you can reach her through me.


Jen Pyle said...

I'm glad Andrea is ok, and I'm thankful she wrote this blog to help spread the word. I'm a biologist, so I know all the nitty gritty effects that happen when our skin is under UV light. It saddens me to see people working out so diligently at the gym, all the while sporting the obvious tans, or smoking outside, and knowing that all the health benefits they may have gained while working out become negated because of these bad habits. Tanning and smoking not only cause cancer, but cause premature aging as well. Bottom line, no buts about it, if you really want to be strong, safe, healthy, and beautiful, you need to eat right, excercise, and quit the smoking and tanning. Thanks Mickey for your great blogs, and thanks Andrea for sharing your personal story to help spread the truth about tanning.

Mickey said...

Hi Jen,

Thanks so much for your thoughts. Sorry for the delayed response- I was away on vacation.

It's definitely sad when people maintain unhealthy habits while exercising; if not negated, their benefits will definitely be reduced.

As I said in a previous post, it also really bothers me when gym owners offer tanning. I realize that, ultimately, it's the consumers choice but why promote an unhealthy activity if you're supposedly in the business of wellness?