Lessons from a Melanoma Survivor
- CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell is a cancer survivor who was diagnosed with melanoma in 2016.
- She’s encouraging everyone to see their dermatologist yearly and to stay away from tanning beds.
- Just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of melanoma by 20 percent and squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. One of our experts says “there is no ‘safe’ tanning bed.”
In a recent interview with InStyle, the television journalist, 47, shared more about her cancer journey and emphasized the importance of skin protection.Read More
“Like most women, sometimes you forget to go to your preventative checkups,” O’Donnell told InStyle. “I realized that I had not had a checkup in a few years at the dermatologist, and my family has a history of skin cancer.”
When she went to the dermatologist, the doctor found a mole on her back that needed to be biopsied. She got the call in Nov. 2016 that it was melanoma.
“For me, these small biopsies are pretty regular, so I didn’t really think anything of it — until she called me,” O’Donnell said. “I was really stunned. The lesson for me was that I need to take my health more seriously.”
Thankfully, O’Donnell’s cancer was “100 percent curable.” Since her cancer journey, she’s been dedicated to focusing on her health and encouraging others to do the same by educating them about melanoma and pushing people to get skin cancer screenings.
“These preventative checkups are so incredibly important,” she said. “You’re supposed to see a dermatologist every year for a skin check — no matter your ethnicity, even if you don’t have a family history. If we can prevent health crises, it’s going to improve the quality of our lives and lengthen our lives.”
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in the same cells that give your skin, hair and eyes their color. The American Cancer Society estimates that 106,110 new melanomas will be diagnosed in the United States in 2021. The disease can develop from an existing mole or appear as a dark or pink growth on the skin even in places on the body that never see the sun. It’s also known to be the deadliest form of skin cancer.
“Melanomas are the deadliest type of skin cancer because they have a tendency to spread to other parts of the body,” explains Dr. Anna Pavlick, an oncologist at NYU Langone Health’s Perlmutter Cancer Center.
Paying Attention to Your Skin
Keeping an eye on the moles or growths on your skin is an easy way to keep an eye out for melanoma. Changes to a mole you’ve had for a while or developing a new growth you don’t remembering having on your skin could be signs of this cancer, according to SurvivorNet’s experts.
Dr. Cecilia Larocca of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute gives SurvivorNet an overview of things to look out for with moles using the ABCDE self-screening method:
- Asymmetrical moles: “If you drew a line straight down the center of the mole, would the sides match?”
- Borders that are “irregular, jagged, not smooth.” It can also stand for bleeding.
- Colors: “Multiple distinct colors in the mole.”
- Diameter: “Larger than 6mm, about the size of a pencil head eraser.”
- Evolution: “This may be the most important,” she says. “Anything that is changing over time such as gaining color, losing color, painful, itching, hurting, changing shape, etc.”
Spots on our skin are often harmless, but it’s still important to keep an eye on them and reach out to your doctor if you see any changes or find a growth anywhere on your skin that looks suspicious. Like O’Donnell emphasizes, it’s important to make time for preventative checkups.
“I’m not qualified to self-diagnosis myself,” she said. “It’s the same with self-breast exams, there’s a reason why we go in to see people who are qualified to do this. We should be looking at our bodies and examining to see if something’s wrong, but let’s also reimagine our relationship with healthcare providers, they’re incredibly important.”
The Dangers of Tanning Beds
Applying sunscreen, wearing hats and rocking some sunglasses are all ways to protect yourself from harmful UVA/UVB rays reaching us from the sun thousands of miles away. Nowadays, O’Donnell wears full spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen “every single morning” – even if she’s wearing a hat or sunglasses or out for a walk at “eight o’clock in the morning and it’s 45 degrees out.”
But O’Donnell said she felt “a little bit ashamed” after discovering she had melanoma.
“I felt like maybe I had done it to myself,” O’Donnell said. “I had enjoyed tanning when I was growing up and that sort of thing.”
You should never blame yourself for a cancer diagnosis, but O’Donnell has a point. When you hop into a tanning bed, you are exposing yourself to the very same rays from only 6-8 inches away. So, even if the temptation of achieving that summer “glow” seems irresistible, you should note that health experts warn against using tanning beds.
“My business with tanning beds was pure vanity,” O’Donnell admitted, adding that fewer people knew of the dangers when she was young. “Also because I am fair-skinned, I thought, ‘Well if I go tan in a tanning bed then I won’t be as sunburned when I go outside,’ which is false — that is a misconception.”
O’Donnell and many others now know the dangers of tanning beds, but millions of people still head to the salons every year. Just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of melanoma by 20 percent and squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. And in a study recently published in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, researchers suggest that banning tanning beds among minors would 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. There is no ‘safe’ tanning bed.”
Dr. Pavlick echoed Dr. Cornelius’ statements by explaining that tanning beds increase your chances of melanoma “exponentially.”
“We know there is a direct correlation with [melanoma] patients who go to indoor tanning salons,” Dr. Pavlick tells SurvivorNet, who notes that the exposure “is about 6 inches from your body.”
The sun is millions of miles away when you’re on a beach, “so you have to think of the intensity that you’re exposing your skin to when you go to a tanning salon,” she says.