Op/Ed: A Tan That Could Kill You

By Cynthia Dagenais

The ABCDs of skin cancer; look for these when checking for signs of skin cancer.

The ABCD's of skin cancer; look for these when checking for signs of skin cancer.

Turn on the television news any given night and you’ll hear about the latest cancer news; newly discovered cancers, how doctors are treating patients, or even how cell phones can cause cancer.  We all are afraid of mortality, especially over a disease like cancer.  Because of this fear, most people try to find ways to prevent any disease they can.  They prevent colds by washing hands, sexually transmitted diseases by wearing condoms, and infections by cleaning fresh wounds.  Did we ever think that we could prevent cancer, or at least some forms of it?

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, and more than 1 million cases are diagnosed every year.   In the American Cancer Society’s annual statistics report, more than 20 Americans die each day from skin cancer, primarily melanoma. One person dies of melanoma almost every hour (every 62 minutes).

With these startling statistics, wouldn’t you like to know an easy way to prevent skin cancer?  It’s quite simple, actually.

My first piece of advice is this: avoid tanning and “catching some rays.”  Tanning is the skin’s reaction to ultraviolet radiation.  Ultraviolet (UV) rays make skin tan because when it is exposed, the brown pigment called melanin is produced from cells called melanocytes.  The dark pigment in the epidermis is meant to defend the body against further damage from UV radiation.

The problem with tanning is that UV radiation damages epidermal DNA.  Enzymes race to the damaged cells in an attempt to repair them, but the restoration of the cells is not always successful.  The unrepaired mutations of the cells can increase the risk of skin cancer and cause forms of photoaging such as wrinkles, sagging of the skin and sun spots.

If tanning causes premature wrinkles and sagging, then why are there so many college students in bathing suits lying out in the sun on the campus green without at least sunscreen or an umbrella?  Sometimes when I pass by the students on my way back from class I hear conversations about how sunburned another member of their party is getting, but the one who is turning into a lobster says that they want to look good while they are still young.  Are they crazy? I sure think so.  The peak age on the attractiveness scale is from high school to college years because of your skin’s youth.  How can you look good at this age if your skin looks like my leather couch at the age of 20?  I’ve seen better looking 40-year-old parents than some of the tannest people on campus.

My second piece of advice to offer is to think about your future.  I’m not talking about getting a job or saving up money for your future family; think about the future of your health.  People our age might not notice how many anti-wrinkle creams are available in stores because we think we are invincible and that the things we do to our bodies now won’t affect us in the future.  The reason why such products are on the market is because adults want their skin to look young again.  Why not keep your skin naturally young while you still are young?  If you don’t tan now, you’ll look so much better now and later on, whereas if you do spend hours outside in direct sunlight you will look old now and as ancient as George Washington would be if he was still alive later on in life.

People also don’t realize that the sunscreen you forget to put on now can cause a fatal disease a few years down the road.  One blistering sunburn more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, later in life.  If you are one of the people who lay out until you are as red as a hot burner on an electric stove every time you go tanning, then count on multiple visits to the dermatologist in your upcoming years.  Let’s hope you have great insurance coverage at your future employer.

Fake sunlight, real risks of cancer.

Fake sunlight, real risks of cancer.

And if the natural sunlight is too expensive to use as a tanning method, there are salons that can provide artificial sunlight, but with the same real dangers of skin cancer for the future.  Case in point: never use a tanning bed. Ever.  According to the International Journal of Cancer (2006), the first exposure to tanning beds in youth increases melanoma risk by 75 percent. Laying down in that box for a half hour is equal to the damage of laying out in direct sunlight on the beach for six hours straight, according to an article in CosmoGirl! Magazine.  What’s even more ridiculous is that many people, especially ladies, go to tanning salons before going to the beach to tan even more.  Why would you let your skin go through that agony?  Apparently you can’t show up to the beach for the first time of the season looking like you have been inside all winter.  I was always suspicious about girls who are fair one day, and then the next time I see them in class they are three shades darker…in the middle of February.  They look fake, and they achieved the “perfect tan” through fake means, but with all the added bonuses of a wrinkly face and cancer.  If you want to look like an Oompa Loompa from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, then be my guest and go to the tanning salon, and then to the hair salon to dye your hair green to match.

You could resemble an Oompa Loompa from tanning.

You could resemble an Oompa Loompa from tanning.

A tanning bed is the first cancer-in-a-box to avoid next to cigarettes when it comes to preventing a fatal disease.  Isn’t it ironic how a tanning bed resembles the coffin that you will likely be buried in as a result of your tanning?  I think the inventors purposely made it that way to provide a preview for the frequent tanning customer.  Sure you might have gotten a good deal at Hollywood Tans, like getting 10 tans for $50, but is it really the best deal?  Even though Marist Money can be used at Beach Body Tanning, can it cover the cost of the cancer it can give you?  The medical bills for the surgeries to remove precancerous and cancerous cells are astronomical.  In 2004, the total direct cost associated with the treatment for non-melanoma skin cancers was more than $1 billion, according to the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology.  Would you rather spend $8 on a bottle of suntan lotion or the $5 per tan plus thousands of dollars for treatment later on?  I think the lotion is the better investment, and I hope you would soon agree.

Lindsay Lohan is tanorexic.  Which picture looks better to you?

Lindsay Lohan is "tanorexic." Which picture looks better to you?

Fair skin is beautiful, and I am not just saying that because I happen to be a fair-skinned redhead who freckles more than tans.  In fact, centuries ago fair skin was a sign of beauty and wealth because those who had enough money to hire workers for their farms stayed out of the sun.  If you were tan it was assumed that you were not wealthy enough to hire workers for your own farm.  Why not bring back an old trend and save your skin as well? Face it: Lindsay Lohan looked so much better with fair skin than how she does now as a “tanorexic” diva.  My last piece of advice from a fair-skinned redhead: put some sunblock on.  Look for an SPF 15 or greater.  What exactly does that mean?  SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and refers to the product’s ability to screen or block out the sun’s rays, according to MedicineNet.  For example, if you usually turn red after spending 10 minutes in the sun without sunscreen, but then you put on an SPF of 2, it would take 20 minutes to reach that same red color without the SPF.  In other words, the higher the number on the SPF, the more protected you will be in the sun.  Despite the fact that almost all sunscreens are now waterproof, it should be reapplied after swimming or sweating a lot and every hour you spend outside.

I know sunscreen can be a hassle sometimes, but it’s really worth spending the time to put the sunscreen on.  Think of it as a daily moisturizer.  I know that my skin is so much softer at the end of the day at the beach when I apply enough so that I don’t burn. Burns not only cause a pink color to appear on the skin, but it also irritates due to dehydration.

Mohs surgery scar on a patient; wear your sunscreen!

Moh's surgery scar on a patient; wear your sunscreen!

Also think of sunscreen as protection from a disease, because it is one.  It will prevent you from getting surgery.  My father had the Moh’s surgery, which takes the precancerous cells out of the body, done on his face twice because decades ago people did not know or use sunscreen to protect themselves.  Today there is greater knowledge about the harmful effects of the sun’s rays, so we can avoid the scars from surgery that people such as my father have to live with.

Cancer is horrible disease to die from.  Though we cannot completely escape from the disease, science has shown us ways to prevent and minimize our chances of contracting it.  Step away from the tanning beds, slather on some lotion, and save your skin from future damage.  The Oompa Loompas have enough orange people to work in the chocolate factory.

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