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Tanning leads to skin cancer at age 21 for one woman

“I was very pale in high school. People would make fun of me, and I just wanted to fit in.”


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June 22, 2017

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Like many others, Elaina McMillan would go tanning before big events like prom or her wedding.

“I was very pale in high school. People would make fun of me, and I just wanted to fit in,” she said. “Everyone was tanning.”

Elaina would slather herself in baby oil and sit outside. She went into tanning beds as early as 14 years old, with her mother’s permission. Growing up, people always warned her that tanning leads to wrinkles later in life, but there wasn’t much warning about how it could also lead to cancer.

“When you’re young, you don’t plan that far ahead for yourself,” Elaina said. “You think you’re invincible. As a kid, looking older earlier is much more compelling than getting cancer.”

Image of Elaina Elaina is now a mom herself and wants all parents to know the dangers of tanning and sun exposure so that they can protect their kids from skin cancer.

A scary diagnosis

When she was 21 years old, Elaina noticed a change in a small black mole on her knee. It had grown slightly and had a different color than any other moles on her body.

Those characteristics pointed to melanoma – the most deadly kind of skin cancer. And doctors told Elaina it’s common for women to see skin cancer appear on their legs.

“Even though the mole was so small, it could still penetrate deeper into my skin and spread,” Elaina said.

The mole was removed and Elaina continues to get other moles checked every six months.

What you need to know

Being active outdoors in a big part of a healthy lifestyle for many people. While it’s important to get up and get some fresh air, it’s also important to protect ourselves from the sun.

More skin cancers are diagnosed in the United States each year than all other cancers combined. Less than one percent of these total cases are melanoma, but melanoma accounts for the majority of fatal cases. Other kinds of skin cancer are usually 99 percent curable with surgery.

“You are the most at risk for skin cancer if you have blond or red hair, light colored eyes and freckles,” said Arkadiusz Dudek, MD, a HealthPartners oncologist at Regions Hospital.

One common misconception is that a person can’t get skin cancer on certain parts of their body if those parts aren’t exposed to the sun. This is not true. While it’s important to cover skin with clothing, it is best to put a layer of sunscreen on your entire body as well – even under your clothes!

People with fair skin who are exposed to intense sunlight have the highest risk of developing skin cancer. So when going on vacation in the middle of winter, be sure to pack lots of sunscreen.

For people who think like Elaina used to, Dr. Dudek has specific advice: “Never go in a tanning bed. Even going in one time puts you at risk,” he says.

Here are some tips to prevent skin cancer:

  • Seek the shade, especially from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Cover skin with clothing, a brimmed hat, sunglasses
  • Get a good layer of sunscreen on – about two tablespoons for your entire body
  • Use an SPF of 30 or higher for extended outdoor activity
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating
  • Examine skin from head-to-toe every month, look for changes
  • Stay away from tanning beds and tanning oils

A lesson learned

As a child, Elaina’s parents didn’t know much about the risks of sun exposure and tanning, either.

“Now as a parent myself, it is my responsibility to make sure my kids aren’t at an increased risk,” she said.

When asked what she would tell her younger self, she said, “If someone told me, ‘You’ll get cancer from tanning,’ I don’t know if I would have even heeded that warning. The beauty aspects were more important at the time.”

Today, though, Elaina says she sees beauty differently.

“Since the Twilight books came out, pale is kind of in! I’m all natural now,” she said. “The root of it is self-acceptance. It’s cheesy, but you are beautiful the way you are.”

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