I’m that girl from the '80s chasing the ultimate tan. I wasn’t just a tanner—I was a professional. The girl who would slather on baby oil tinted with iodine—or Crisco oil when I was desperate—then add in some niacin to flush my skin and a foil blanket to get that best reflection.
And when the sun was away, I was the girl behind the counter at the tanning salon on the corner. I was so tan that people looked at me strangely, but I didn’t care because I felt beautiful and healthy. To me, a tan was the path to ultimate beauty.
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Even in the '90s when people started talking about SPF and the harmful effects of the sun, I shrugged it off and lathered up. There was no better feeling than the heat from the sun or a tanning bed. I became so addicted that I took a job at the local tanning salon so I could tan a few times a day. I would hand out cards at the high school across the street for discounts on unlimited tanning packages. I would sell tanning accelerators to help others on their journey toward the most amazing golden tan.
I was the girl who didn’t know. A tan was healthy! Go to the gym and then to tan, nothing would help you live a healthier life! I remember being told that UV light was safer than the sun, so tanning beds could actually save my skin and my life!
I wonder if they knew the truth back then.
Even today, a tanning salon will tell you how safe tanning beds are, even when it is proven that tanning beds increase your chances of skin cancer and melanoma by 75 percent on your first use for those under the age of 30.
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A few years later, SPF suddenly made its mark in America. Tanning lotions turned into sunscreen and the talk about skin cancer started to rise. My first of hundreds of dermatology appointments also started happening.
On my first visit, I had 10 of 62 moles removed, yet I still didn’t get it. Each time I went to the dermatologist, the moles would come back abnormal, but not yet cancerous. After so many biopsies, I felt as if I was invincible, and I still strived for that healthy glow. My career had changed, but my desire for a deep tan had not. Even when I started working after college, I found myself in tanning beds now and then. With the spray tan on the rise, I opted for a tanning bed with a spray tan to boost the color. Little did I know that 20 years later, melanoma would change my life.
On my 45th birthday, I noticed my vision was a bit strange. Everything seemed to get wavy when I looked up. I had had LASIK surgery years before so had not seen an eye doctor in years. Why should I? I had perfect eyesight, until now.
I went in and the doctor asked if she could dilate my eyes and get a look at the back of them. When she came back, the look on her face said it all: Something besides my eyesight was wrong. She calmly said that she thought I may have ocular melanoma, a rare form of melanoma inside the eye. I looked around the office waiting for cameras to jump out and say “You’re on Candid Camera,” but nothing happened. She continued to tell me how I needed to be seen at the university hospital, and that he could confirm her diagnosis and treat me. I left her office a bit numb, but assuming I would get a call in a few days and then make an appointment in a few weeks, as we all know how long these things can take. But before I made it home (a 15-minute drive), the doctor’s scheduler called. She said they wanted to see me the next morning and to expect my appointment to be six to eight hours minimum.
It still didn’t sink in.
After hours of testing and going over my treatment options, I was formally diagnosed with ocular melanoma.
The first thought in my head after hearing my diagnosis was that it was from tanning beds. All this time I thought only of melanoma on the skin, not in the eye or other parts of the body. I started seeing statistics about tanning beds and the increase of skin cancer just after one use. I couldn’t forget the many teenagers I talked into getting a healthy tan! How many lives could I have saved?
After a year of treatment to shrink the tumor, the tumor did the opposite and grew. My only option was to have the eye enucleated (removed). If the scars from having many skin biopsies wasn’t enough, now I had no left eye.
Life was changed for me and for those around me. In turn, I decided to make a change in my world. I quit my job and went to work for the Melanoma Research Foundation as a development officer. I wanted to give back to all of those I may have hurt over the years with my own journey for the ultimate tan. I felt that fundraising to help find a cure for melanoma.
Over the next year, I had the opportunity to meet so many melanoma victims. Sadly, so many of them were in their 20s and 30s, and almost all of them had a tanning bed history. I watched some of these beautiful women and men lose that battle.
Melanoma isn’t just a cancer you get treatment for and you’re cured—melanoma may go away for a time, but once it is in your blood stream, the cells will wander your body looking for its next host. Sometimes, those cells stay quiet forever, but in many cases, they wake up and the cancer battle with metastatic melanoma begins. It is an ugly cancer, and one I live with. We get scans every three to six months for years, always wondering “when” the bomb will drop.
All of this for a TAN.
Today, I look at my life or in my son’s eyes and I wish I could do it all over again. This time, I would stay out of the sun, or at least protected while I was in it.