Cancer researchers everywhere dubbed 2011 as the year for melanoma. Two new drugs, ipilimumab and vemurafenib, were approved by the FDA to treat advanced stages of the disease, making them the first new melanoma drugs in 13 years (that's a long time in cancer land). Just this week, MSNBC published an article called, "New melanoma drug - a turning point against cancer?" Of course, this is great news. Melanoma has been, for a long time, one of the most elusive cancers to scientists.
But (yes, there is always a but)--as news of a new melanoma drugs becomes more mainstream, I fear that the public will develop misconceptions that tanning is safe again. Although most news articles clearly state that we're still far from a cure, people seem to have great faith in the powers of science to "cure cancer" before it can hurt them. For example, when I was in college, I remember asking a fellow tanner if she ever worried about the potential side effects from UV radiation.
"We're all going to get cancer anyway," she said. "And besides, by the time I'm 80, they'll probably have a cure for cancer anyway."
"You don't worry about getting wrinkles either?"
"Um, hello. Botox?"
Years later, this conversation has stuck with me because it epitomizes the way we rationalize our use of tanning beds: "Yes, tanning can cause cancer, but it won't happen to me." Or, "Yes, tanning causes cancer, but it won't happen until I'm older." It was around the time I had this conversation that my grandfather was diagnosed with skin cancer. Years of playing golf and vacationing in warm climates wrecked havoc on his face and scalp. To this day, he's had more lesions removed than I can count on both fingers and toes. Hearing about my grandpa's run-in with skin cancer scared me, but it didn't scare me completely out of the sun. My grandpa was old. Things like that happened to old people.
From that point on, every time I laid down in that acrylic bed and pulled down the clam-shell lid, I was able to make peace with the fact that someday I too would probably be diagnosed with skin cancer. That is, if I hadn't already died from a heart attack, stroke, or breast cancer. If something was going to kill me, I thought, I might as well look beautiful and have fun while I'm young.
I never thought I would be diagnosed with melanoma less than 10 years after I started tanning. And I'm not the only one. My friends over at the Glenna Kohl Fund for Hope sent me a great article today from Providence College's The Cowl about a former teenage "tanorexic" turned melanoma prevention advocate (like me!) When I read about Megan Rothschild, I felt like I was reading about myself. In the article, Megan is quoted saying:
"In my mind, I thought 'I'm not going to get melanoma. I'm not going to get skin cancer.' People told me that I looked dark and maybe I should go get my skin checked out, but my mentality was if I was going to get cancer it would be when I was 70. At that time, I felt invincible."I think she hits the nail right on the head there, going on to say: "There's still this conception that [melanoma] is an 'easy' cancer. It used to be most common among older men because of their habitual golfing, but it's actually becoming a young woman's cancer now."
So let's celebrate the fact that every day we're inching closer to a time when advanced-stage melanoma will no longer be a death sentence. Let's just also keep in mind that regardless of what breakthroughs come out of the labs, we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that suntanning is safe.