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July 1, 2006

Would You Bare Your Body To Fight Skin Cancer?

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Meghan, 22, journalist, Bristol, RI

I STARTED GOING TO TANNING BEDS in high school, trying to mask my Irish heritage. My friends could always get a nice, even tan in the sun, but I would burn in sporadic splotches. By senior year, I was so fed up I would sneak off behind my mother's back. She had repeatedly told me not to, but I was desperate, so I did it anyway. People had told me tanning beds were better for you than the sun, so I assumed it was OK. Of course, by college, my friends said I was going too often and that I was going to get wrinkles-or worse-but it was just one of those "it's not going to happen to me" situations. One day, I noticed a mole I'd had forever had gotten darker. I'd had a mole removed before and I was in and out in 20 minutes, so I didn't think anything of it. I did the same with this one. A week later, I went to have my stitches taken out. A doctor I'd never seen before came in to remove them. He looked concerned. "Meghan, is anyone here with you?" he asked. "No," I said. "I'm alone." That's when he broke the news: I had melanoma. The minute the words came out of his mouth, I felt like an idiot. Everyone had told me to stop tanning. Now my thoughts had begun to race: What did it mean? Would I have chemo? Would I live? I left and burst into tears. When I called my parents, I was sobbing so uncontrollably I could hardly speak, and they had no idea what my diagnosis meant. When a doctor tells a patient she has breast cancer, you know it's serious-you could lose a breast. But I couldn't comprehend how something on the outside of my body could spread to the inside! My surgery took three hours: They removed a large area of skin on my stomach and eight lymph nodes from my underarms to determine if the cancer had spread. I ended up with over 70 stitches-and two tubes sewn into me to help with drainage. "Your scar is going to be bigger than they expected," my sister said when I finally woke up. It was C-shaped and about seven or eight inches long. I had worried for weeks about that scar, but afterward, I didn't care. I just wanted to be healthy again. A week later, walking across campus, I got a call from a number I didn't recognize. It turned out to be the best news of my life: "Meghan, your lymph nodes came back clean," my surgeon said. I had gotten really lucky. Two years have passed since then. Sometimes I still hate my scar-I've had it injected to make it flat and lasered to fade it. But now I see it as something that defines who I am. I like talking about it-and telling my story.


Recent studies show sunning may produce the same effects as a runner's high: Over half of the beachgoers who took a recent two-part survey to determine the likelihood of developing an actual addiction to tanning tested positive on one set of questions- meaning they met the psychological criteria for a substance-related disorder! Richard Wagner, senior author of the 2005 report and deputy chairman of dermatology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, says more research is necessary. Other studies suggest that tanning may also cause your brain to produce endorphins, or feel-good hormones.


Slather yourself with a broadspectrum sunscreen (with UVA and UVB protection) of at least SPF 15, and reapply regularly. Unsure which sunscreen will work best? The Skin Cancer Foundation awards their annual Seal of Recommendation to the safest and most effective products on the market: Go to skincancer.org to get a print-and-shop list.


Recognizing changes in your skin is the best way to catch skin cancer early-and melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, usually develops in a mole you already have. Any mole that scabs over, bleeds, or has changed size or shape requires a trip to the dermatologist.


Crunching the numbers for a good cause:

13 bikinis @ $200 = $2600

20 one-pieces (or two-pieces with sarongs!) @ $100 = $2000

"Wipe Out Skin Cancer" Campaign Proceeds = $4600

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