Healthbeat Segment: Skin Deep

May 20, 2010 (CHICAGO)

That may be surprising because it's wrongly assumed that skin cancer usually strikes older people. But age doesn't matter. Anyone can be a target.

Lindsay Walsh, 22, and her friends are discussing details of a fundraiser in her honor.

"I was always that person who said it wasn't going to happen to me," said Walsh.

But last June it did. Walsh was diagnosed with skin cancer. The scar is a constant reminder and so are the injections she has to take three times a week. It started with a mole on her leg that grew, peeled and eventually started to bleed. She was devastated to learn she had stage 3 melanoma. Lindsay is convinced her quest for a constant tan is to blame.

"I didn't want to wear sunscreen out in the sun because then you wouldn't get that tan or the burn in my case and I did use tanning beds a lot," said Walsh.

Northwestern dermatologist Mary Martini says it's a routine she hears all too often.

"The classic story is a women does it in her late tens early 20s and then realizes five years later what she did. And we cannot go back. There is nothing we can do medically to undo that damage," said Dr. Martini.

In the sun or a tanning bed the body is exposed to ultraviolet light which stimulates skin cells to release pigment to make your skin darker.

Most researchers say no matter where you get it from, too much UV light can be a risk for skin cancer. But a spokesman for the Indoor Tanning Association says, "the risks have been exaggerated and the benefits of ultraviolet light have been ignored...just like the sun you can overexpose yourself in a tanning bed. The mantra of our industry is moderation."

Many critics say unless it's sprayed on there's no such thing as a safe tan.

"The damage that is sitting there you won't see for months to years later," said Dr. Martini.

What she's saying is the cell's DNA can be damaged potentially causing mutations that may lead to cancer even if you haven't been in the sun for years. So people of all ages are now being advised to keep a close watch on their skin.

Melanoma gets a lot of attention but experts say there are other skin cancers being missed.

"I thought it was just dry skin you know," said Tom Conway, cancer patient.

Conway says constant sun exposure from riding his motorcycle is probably to blame for his diagnosis of actinic keratosis or AK. It's considered a pre-cancer involving dry scaly patches usually on the face, scalp and ears. AK is usually not fatal. Rush dermatologist Julie Moore says if left untreated it can become cancerous.

"Although the chance of those metastasizing are small they can really eat away at the tissue and become destructive to the skin," said Dr. Moore.

A melanoma typically changes size, shape and color over time. But other skin cancers can show up as anything from a red scaly patch to a raised pimple-like bump.

The good news is skin cancers are highly treatable if caught early. Walsh wishes she had not waited so long to see a doctor. She now wants to warn teens and twentysomethings about the risks she didn't understand.

"You can't tell by looking at me that I have cancer but I think people need to be more aware of the effect that not only tanning beds but the actual sun can have on you," said Walsh.

The FDA is considering tighter controls on tanning beds to restrict teen use. That includes parental consent.

Also, a 10 percent tax on tanning bed use starts nationwide this July. And many skin experts say the best way to keep skin safe is to wear a sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher whenever you are outside.

Lindsay Walsh Benefit

American Academy of Dermatology

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