The writer, of Omaha, is an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. He is also a past president of the Nebraska Dermatology Society.
Brenda Stephens wishes she knew then what she knows now.
Her daughter Kasey was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a potentially deadly skin cancer, at only 17 years old. Kasey had tanned indoors since she was 14, with Brenda’s consent. “It was just normal,” Brenda says. “I did it myself.”
By the time it was discovered, Kasey’s cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes, leading to several surgeries and a full year of chemotherapy. Now three years later, she must see her doctors every three months to search for any sign her cancer has returned. The doctors agree that early overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation likely caused her melanoma.
The facts are sobering. According to the Nebraska Cancer Registry, women under 30 in Nebraska get more than twice as many melanomas as men under 30. Melanoma is the most common cancer in women age 25 to 29 years and one of the leading killers. It is also increasing faster than any other cancer, especially in young women. And three of every four melanomas in women under 30 are a direct result of using indoor tanning beds.
UV radiation levels are at least two to four times stronger in indoor tanning beds than in natural sunlight and up to 12 to 14 times stronger in newer, more powerful devices.
Strong evidence now confirms that overexposure to this intense UV radiation in tanning beds causes not only melanoma but also the less deadly but often disfiguring squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas of the skin. All three cancers are significantly more common in indoor tanners, who are mostly young women.
Unfortunately, Brenda is not alone in not having known the hazards of indoor tanning. Finding accurate advice about the risks of allowing an adolescent to tan can be difficult for parents.
A 2012 congressional report revealed that nine out of 10 of a large sample of tanning salons nationwide (including Nebraska) told investigators posing as customers that indoor tanning had no health risks. When asked specifically about skin cancer, over half dismissed the known risks as “myth,” “rumor” and “hype.” Four of five salons claimed indoor tanning was good for the health of a teenage girl. Several said tanning would prevent cancer, treat depression and low self-esteem and aid in weight loss.
Tanning ads imply that indoor tanning makes a person sexy and healthy. Clients aren’t told that their “healthy glow” is actually the visible evidence of DNA injury, the same injury that may lead to cancer.
Vitamin D production is also given as a benefit of indoor tanning, but the vast majority of the UV radiation in tanning units does nothing at all for Vitamin D production. Vitamin D supplements are far safer (and less expensive) choices to boost winter Vitamin D levels.
Parents seeking facts to make an informed decision about indoor tanning are well advised to find a source of information that doesn’t profit by influencing their choice. Finding guidance online may not be straightforward, since some websites (for example, the UV Foundation and Vitamin D Council) do not disclose tanning industry affiliations. However, websites such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and AIM at Melanoma are good examples of science-based, easy-to-use portals of important information.
As part of an effort to address growing community concern about rising skin cancer rates from indoor tanning, State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha has introduced the Skin Cancer Prevention Act (Legislative Bill 132).
Supporters of the measure believe limiting access of underage tanners to commercial tanning facilities is necessary to help curb the alarming increase in skin cancers in Nebraska’s young women. Further, this legislation would improve parental awareness of the long-term hazards of indoor tanning and would protect junior-high and high-school-age children from casually making what may be a life-threatening decision.
Brenda and Kasey stand in strong support of LB 132 and the message it carries.
For Brenda, such a law might have kept Kasey safe by preventing her early intense indoor UV exposures and by alerting both of them to the risks involved with indoor tanning. In hindsight, forgoing indoor tanning to avoid Kasey’s cancer would have been an easy choice, had they been aware of the danger.