Marcelle Leahy: The ticking time bomb of skin cancer

Editor's note: This commentary is by Marcelle Leahy, a registered nurse, a cancer survivor, and an active member of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation, and is married to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

[I]t’s (finally!) the start of summer, and May is Melanoma and Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month -- a good time to take note that skin cancer is on the rise, but that we can protect ourselves and those we love.

As I explain before groups large and small, I am a melanoma survivor, and a registered nurse. But my most significant credential is as a mother and grandmother, and here is my current “public service announcement” for my family, and yours.

 We need to spread the message — especially to young women — that the dangers of indoor tanning are real, and that using tanning beds or lamps is not worth the risk.


Skin cancer has reached epidemic proportions and is the most common form of cancer in our country. There is no such thing as a “safe” tan. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and from indoor tanning lamps is a proven human carcinogen. The bottom line is that exposure from the sun and from tanning beds can cause skin cancer and can lead to serious health consequences. It can kill you. The good news that it’s also the most preventable form of cancer.

Many Americans “go tanning” without knowing the risks, and each year almost 420,000 cases of skin cancer – including cancer types other than melanoma -- are attributable to indoor tanning. One in five Americans will get skin cancer during their lifetime, and more than $8 billion is spent each year in treatment costs. The deadliest form of skin cancer is melanoma. Each year 140,000 new melanoma cases are diagnosed in the United States alone, with almost 10,000 recorded deaths. In Vermont, about 150 new melanoma cases are expected this year.

Young women are being diagnosed with skin cancer at alarming rates, but cancer prevention advocates are finding it difficult to reach women about prevention. Over the past 40 years, incidence of melanoma has risen by 800 percent among young women between the ages of 18 and 39. Persistent use of indoor tanning devices is believed to be a leading cause, because they can boost the chance of developing melanoma by 59 percent. Using tanning beds before age 35 increases the lifetime melanoma risk by 75 percent. Though the science on tanning by now is clear, 2 million Americans still tan indoors every day, and more than 30 million use tanning beds.

Because of this clear danger, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reclassified UV tanning lamps to carry the strongest “black box” warning, which alerts users that they should be regularly screened for skin cancer. The FDA also advises that the lamps should not be used for individuals under 18.

But let me repeat the good news: Skin cancer is highly preventable. We need to spread the message — especially to young women — that the dangers of indoor tanning are real, and that using tanning beds or lamps is not worth the risk.

And since natural sunlight is still the main environmental cause of skin cancer, it is important to take the simple steps in protecting ourselves from the sun. Use broad spectrum sunscreen (protection against UVA and UVB rays with SPF 30 or higher) and wear protective clothing and eyewear. It is also important to limit overall sun exposure, particularly during the peak hours of sunlight in the middle of the day.

While fair-skinned people are at greatest risk for skin cancer, no one is immune. Those with darker skin tend to catch skin cancer at later stages, when it is more difficult to treat. Everyone must be vigilant about sun exposure and should schedule regular screenings with health professionals. Check yourself and your loved ones often for new, irregular or suspicious moles. When looking at moles remember the ABCDE rule: Asymmetry (one half of the mole doesn’t match the other), Border irregularity, Color that is not uniform, Diameter greater than 6 mm (about the size of a pencil eraser), and Evolving size, shape or color.

This summer, and always, let’s do what we can to practice sun and skin safety. Protect your skin in the sun, and stay away from tanning beds and sunlamps. Take control — talk to your friends, talk to your parents, talk to your spouse, talk to your doctor. These simple steps can protect your skin from early aging and save your life, and the lives of those you love.

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