Tanning Beds and Skin Cancer
- Jak Howell was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma after years of tanning-bed use.
- Melanoma starts in the same cells that give your skin, hair, and eyes their color. Only, in melanoma, the cells change in a way that makes them able to spread to other organs.
- The most important thing to look out for when it comes to finding melanoma is a new spot on your skin, or a spot that is changing in size, shape, or color.
- Tanning beds contain the same UVA and UVB rays as the sun except they can have more intensity because the skin is only a few inches away from the light source.
- Researchers found “indoor tanning is associated with increased risk for early-onset melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC).”
- If you’re diagnosed with melanoma, there’s a good chance surgery is going to be the treatment your doctor recommends.
A 23-year-old man who said he was addicted to tanning beds is now blaming them for his dangerous skin cancer diagnosis as a teen, warning others to avoid them. Here’s what our experts want you to know about the dangerous link between tanning beds and an increased risk of skin cancer.
“I never knew how dangerous sunbeds were, I just thought I was invincible,” Jak Howell said to U.K. news outlet, The Mirror.Read More
More on Skin Cancers and Tanning
- ‘Bubbly’ Mom, 36, Quit Her Tanning Bed Habit After Catching And Removing A Cancerous Mole On Her Back: But Years Later, The Cancer Came Back
- ‘I Would Rather Die Hot Than Be Ugly’: Young TikTok Star Warns of Tanning Beds After Skin Cancer Scare
- ‘This Weird Mole Popped Up On My Tummy!’ Terrified Model On Her Cancer Scare After Using Tanning Beds And How She’ll Now Use ‘Fake Tan Instead’
- 25-Year-Old Mother Diagnosed With Melanoma After Using a Tanning Bed Twice a Week for Months To Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder; Know The Risks
However, in April 2021, things started to change for Howell, who was 18 at the time, when he noticed a spot on his lower back. He thought it might have been a bug bite, but that spot became increasingly difficult to ignore as it would become irritated and occasionally bleed.
“I went running to my mom and I could tell by the look on her face that she was really worried,” Howell said.
After his doctor removed the spot for a biopsy, test results revealed he had stage 3 melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer usually caused by too much sun and ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure.
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After his diagnosis, Howell said he struggled to cope with the reality that he now had cancer.
“It was an absolute whirlwind,” Howell said.
“I was just speechless…everything went silent, my palms were soaking with sweat,” he added.
A cancer diagnosis can be shocking and intimidating, along with a slew of other emotions. Rather than blame yourself, SurvivorNet experts recommend learning everything you can about the cancer or disease. Also, asking your doctor additional questions and even seeking a second opinion can help ease the initial shock and anxiety associated with a new diagnosis.
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It starts in the same cells that give your skin, hair, and eyes their color. Only, in melanoma, the cells change in a way that makes them able to spread to other organs. Melanoma can also form in your eyes and inside your body, including your nose and throat, although according to Mayo Clinic, these are very rare cases.
Changes to a mole you’ve had for a while or a new growth on your skin could be signs of melanoma, according to SurvivorNet’s experts.
Melanoma Symptoms and Risk Factors
The most important thing to look out for when it comes to finding melanoma is a new spot on your skin or a spot that is changing in size, shape, or color, SurvivorNet’s medical experts say. The spot will likely also look different from all of the other spots on your skin.
When you check your skin, use the acronym ABCDE as your guide:
- Asymmetrical moles: If you drew a line straight down the center of the mole, would the sides match?
- Borders: Is the mole irregular or jagged?
- Colors: Are there multiple distinct colors in the mole?
- Diameter: Is the mole larger than 6 millimeters (mm), about the size of a pencil head eraser?
- Evolution: Has the mole’s color, shape, or size changed over time?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, our experts say it’s time to see your dermatologist for a skin check.
Other red flags to watch for are:
- A sore that doesn’t heal
- Color that spreads from the border of a spot to the skin around it
- Redness or swelling that goes beyond the area of a mole
- Itchiness, tenderness, or pain
- A change in the way the surface of a mole appears
- Scaliness, oozing, or blood
Risk factors are things that make you more likely to get cancer. In the case of melanoma, both your genes and things you’re exposed to in your environment can increase your risk, like:
- Being fair-skinned
- Having blond hair and blue eyes
- Having a family history of skin cancer
- Having many moles all over your body
- Being diagnosed with melanoma in the past
- Frequenting indoor tanning salons
Tanning Beds’ Link to Skin Cancer
Tanning beds emit ultraviolet (UV) rays, much like those coming from the sun. While people may use tanning beds to achieve a bronzed look they want, these rays can be extremely harmful to the skin.
UV rays can cause skin cells to age and even damage some of the cell’s DNA, according to the American Cancer Society. UVA rays are one type of ultraviolet ray that can damage the skin and makes up about 95% of all UV rays from the sun that reaches the ground. UVB rays have slightly more energy than UVA rays and can damage the skin directly. They’re the main cause of sunburns and most skin cancers, including melanoma.
Tanning beds emit both UVA and UVB rays, but they can have more intensity because the skin is only a few inches away from the lights source.
WATCH: People who go to tanning salons significantly increase their risk of developing melanoma.
A clear and direct correlation exists between skin cancer risk and the use of indoor tanning salons.
“There is an exponential increase in patients who develop melanomas who have been to tanning salons,” explains Dr. Anna Pavlick, an oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine.
In a study that reviewed 54 other studies examining the link between indoor tanning devices and early-onset skin cancers, researchers found “indoor tanning is associated with increased risk for early-onset melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC).”
The researchers went on to urge people to avoid using indoor tanning.
Another study conducted by Yale Cancer Center said young people who tanned indoors had a “69% increased risk of early-onset basal cell carcinoma (BCC),” the most common form of skin cancer. In fact, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 3.6 million cases of BCC are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
“Indoor tanning was strikingly common in our study of young skin cancer patients, especially in the women, which may partially explain why 70% of early-onset BCCs occur in females,” researcher Susan T. Mayne said to Yale Daily News.
Meanwhile, the American Academy of Dermatology says that just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of melanoma by 20% and squamous cell carcinoma, another common form of skin cancer, by 67%.
A study published recently in a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society suggests that banning tanning beds among minors would help prevent thousands of cases of melanoma in adolescents, along with millions of dollars in healthcare costs.
“Studies have shown that exposure to tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancer and ocular cancer,” says Dr. Lynn A. Cornelius, chief of the Division of Dermatology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “It also induces changes that lead to premature aging of the skin.”
Dr. Jennifer Lucas at Cleveland Clinic puts it simply, tanning beds are more harmful than the sun.
“Tanning beds are just as, if not more, harmful than the sun and there is no such thing as a safe tan. There’s many reasons to avoid tanning beds altogether,” Dr. Lucas said.
If you’re diagnosed with melanoma, there’s a good chance surgery is going to be the treatment your doctor recommends. In the early stages of the disease, removing the cancer should lead to a cure.
For an early-stage melanoma that is close to the skin surface, Mohs surgery might be an option. This technique removes skin cancer, layer by layer, until all the cancer is gone.
In general, stage 1 melanoma surgery consists of the simple, in-office removal of the cancerous cells by a dermatologist. If the cancer is thicker, your surgeon will remove it through a technique called wide excision surgery.
The removal of stage 2 and 3 melanomas are performed by surgeons or surgical oncologists, not dermatologists. You may also have a sentinel lymph node biopsy to see if the melanoma has spread to the first lymph node where it’s most likely to travel. If your cancer has reached this first lymph node, it may have spread to other neighboring lymph nodes, and possibly to other organs. Where the cancer is will dictate your treatment.
After surgery, the removed tissue and lymph nodes will go to a specialist called a pathologist, who will measure the melanoma and find out if it has clear margins. Having clear margins means the cells around the area of tissue that was removed don’t contain any melanoma. When there aren’t any cancer cells left around the removed area, your cancer is less likely to come back.
Howell’s Cancer Journey
“The surgery hadn’t worked, the cancer was still there, and it was back with a vengeance,” Howell said. “I was told I’d need further treatment and that it was my last option to fight it.”
After Howell was diagnosed, he began treatment between May and September of 2021. His treatment included two rounds of radiotherapy, but that treatment wasn’t working. Furthermore, he learned doctors found his cancer had spread from the spot on his back to his groin.
Howell’s road to remission became a focal point for his TikTok channel, where the cancer warrior shared his brave battle and treatment.
“The first two rounds of immunotherapy were hell, it was a big shock to my body. It improved after that, but my body has changed – I’m breathless a lot and my tastebuds have changed. I was nauseous and fatigued,” he said.
In December 2021, he began immunotherapy, which helps cancer warriors fight melanoma by enabling their own antibodies to attack the cancer cells.
“When immunotherapy came on the market, it was such an exciting time for everyone involved in the care of melanoma, the main reason being is it went from this scary unmanageable cancer with no treatments to one that could potentially have a long-lasting result with patients absolutely never having to worry about their melanoma,” explains Dr. Cecilia Larocca, a dermatologist at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
For the next twelve months, Howell had several rounds of immunotherapy treatment every six weeks until Christmas 2022. He continued to share short video clips on his TikTok channel of his treatments.
By December 2022, Howell was finally in remission from his skin cancer, a moment he’d been fighting years for. Now 23, Howell hopes other people with the same affinity for tanning beds think twice before using them again.
“I wanted to share my story in the hopes it would help other people, and I’ve had comments from others who can relate to what I’ve been through,” he said.
“I don’t think enough people realize how dangerous sunbeds are,” he added.
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Despite his change in lifestyle, Howell still displays a nice, tanned look, but he now opts for safer options.
“I use fake tan now instead because I don’t want to go through another diagnosis,” he said.
And this alternative is something our own experts definitely recommend as a safe way to achieve a tan.
Dr. Lynn A. Cornelius, chief of the Division of Dermatology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, says to use spray tans and sunless tanning lotions. While “one should take precautions not to inhale the product when getting a spray tan,” she said, “skin allergic reactions are rare.”
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