A healthy tan and days filled with sunshine seem worlds away, especially with the frigid temperatures and the dead of winter being upon us here in good old Michigan. Is there such a thing as a healthy tan? We at HDC think not, where as far as we are concerned, the only safe tan is a fake one, whether you get it from spray tanning, self-tanner, or some bronzer. But just because our summer color is fading and the warm sun isn’t out, it does not mean that diagnosing skin cancers and melanoma have come to a halt here at HDC. In fact, during the fall and winter months, when the sun’s rays are at their weakest, we actually see a rise in the number of total body exams among our patients. That’s a really great thing because skin health, awareness, and maintenance are what HDC is about. Throughout the course of any week, Dr. Honet and Carolyn, our nurse practitioner, are busy examining the skin and performing biopsies on lesions that appear suspicious. These skin exams help to monitor your skin health on a regular basis, and believe it or not, we are able to literally save lives with a skin exam and a quick skin biopsy.
Of course, being knowledgeable about skin health and protecting your skin from the sun are important in people of all ages, but with this post, I want to focus primarily on the Millennials, which encompass the generation that ranges in age from 19 to 35. I know from a personal point of view, indoor tanning bed use was ridiculously popular when Millennials (such as myself) were in our teens. It was literally the norm to stop at the tanning salon on your way home from school, in preparation for a huge social event, or just because you weren’t “feeling” your best. In our young and ignorant minds, being tan meant looking your best and actually feeling your best. Of course, as we grew older (and now that I am a lot wiser since working at HDC), we learned that this habit would hurt us in more ways than one. Little did we know that the tanning booth put us at high risk for skin cancer, premature aging, long-term damage to our eyes, and immune system suppression. Wow! To think that in the prime of our young lives, we were putting our health at so much risk! The sad thing is that the tanning booth is still popular among young people because they are erroneously led to believe that it is safe. Personally, my tanning days are long over thanks to Dr. Honet. I have no problem admitting that I tanned until I learned the risks, because now I can spread the truth about tanning. Tanning was a lifestyle, and a deadly one at that. Of course, if everyone knew about the risks of tanning bed use, I would hope that no one in their right mind would actually do it.
According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, “Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for young people 15-29 years old.” It has placed tanning booths in the highest cancer risk category, where tanning booths are simply straight-out carcinogenic to humans. It states, “The use of indoor tanning devices (outside of medical practice) represents one of the most striking examples of an avoidable cause of lethal cancer in humans.” In fact, studies have found that tanning booth use can increase your risk by 60-75%! These statistics are alarming, frightening, and humbling. They show that many young people do not truly understand the disturbing health risk of skin cancer because tanning booths are still so popular. Let’s face it. Most of us in our teens and twenties never ever feel that we could become that statistic. We feel and look healthy. We are in the prime of our lives. We feel invincible. But little do we know that skin cancer, especially the deadly malignant melanoma, does not recognize or respect youth or age.
We make numerous diagnoses of skin cancer in the office. Not a day, a week, or a month goes by without our needing to call one of our patients with the bad news. But there is a silver lining. Because the skin is so accessible as the only organ that can be examined without any special equipment, dermatologists like Dr. Honet can make a quick determination about whether to biopsy or not. The other silver lining is that most skin cancers when diagnosed early are literally cured when completely excised. This holds true for even malignant melanoma. What an amazing opportunity to stay healthy with just an annual visit to the dermatologist!
We have recently seen a concerning spike in skin cancer among young adults. The frightening and often life-changing thing is when the diagnosis is malignant melanoma. If left untreated or if diagnosis is delayed, melanoma has the ability to readily spread to different areas of the body, through local extension and distant metastases. The severity of melanoma is commonly downplayed among laypeople, especially the younger crowd, because it has been perceived as an “older person” disease or problem. This is no longer the case at all, for many reasons, but primarily because of tanning-booth habits. Plus, even though years of not using may happen, the skin does not forget the earlier carcinogenic insult of these damaging UV rays, especially ones from a tanning booth. Unfortunately, the damage is done and the melanoma can occur years later. Although most skin cancers are cured with a simple and complete excision, many don’t realize that if not caught early, melanoma tends to metastasize, affecting numerous organs and ultimately killing you.
Knowledge is everything, and it’s important to keep yourselves educated on the importance of not only avoiding the use of tanning booths, but also protecting your skin from the sun. If you have a history of previous skin cancer, history of tanning bed use, history of sunburns, or a family history of melanoma or other skin cancers, it’s important to get your skin checked regularly. And remember to always use your sunscreen (Dr. Honet recommends an SPF 0f 30-45) and keep yourselves well protected when you spend time in the sun, because let’s face it, there really is no such thing as a healthy tan.
Happy, healthy skin!!
-Senada and Dr. HMelanoma and the Myth of a Healthy Tan