Dermatologists are reporting more cases of skin cancer in younger, female patients, and they blame tanning beds for some of those cases.
The American Academy of Dermatology said women who use tanning beds before the age of 30 are six times as likely to develop melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
Chief meteorologist Steve Udelson has battled skin cancer himself four times and is always working to spread the word about sun safety.
He met Kimberly Luther, a Concord mother who helps to put a face with the statistics.
At age 28, Luther is paying a high price for her late teens when she stayed tan year-round, often by using a tanning bed.
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“I loved having a tan,” Luther said. “I would go straight to the tanning bed, use ‘em for weeks on end. I could get fairly dark using them.”
Luther said her friends did the same thing, and none of them thought twice about it.
She also didn’t think twice when a small dot appeared on her cheek. She thought it was a beauty mark, until it started growing.
The diagnosis? Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
“It was scary. It was very scary,” Luther recalled.
Doctors removed three millimeters of tissue from her cheek last September, as well as two lymph nodes.
The lymph nodes turned out to be cancerous, so in November, doctors operated again, removing all of the lymph nodes on her right side, as well as her salivary gland.
She still has scars, which she tries to cover with makeup. And as a wife and mother of two young children, she worries about the future.
“I’m just hoping that I’m one that, it never comes back,” Luther said. “You always know there’s a chance of it coming back, so it always sits in the back of your brain, regardless of how positive you are.”
Dermatologist Dr. Laura McGirt at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte is seeing more and more 20-something women with melanoma.
“For many of those patients that I see who have cancer in that age range, frequently they have a history of tanning bed use,” McGirt said.
McGirt said there is “absolutely” a link between skin cancer and tanning bed use.
Ultraviolet or "UV" rays are what darken the skin, and researchers said they pose a danger whether they're from the sun or a tanning bed.
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McGirt cited an American Academy of Dermatology study that states emphatically that, "Using indoor tanning beds before age 35 can increase your risk of melanoma by 59 percent."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the connection as well, stating, "Exposure to ultraviolet rays while indoor tanning can cause skin cancers."
The World Health Organization warned of "adverse health effects associated with sunbed use," saying some tanning beds can emit UV radiation levels that are five times stronger than the midday sun.
“The exposure in tanning beds is more concentrated, so there’s a thought that it’s actually worse for you than being out in the regular sun,” McGirt said.
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“Is it the same kind of radiation as sitting in the sun, just more intense because it is shorter?” Steve asked.
“Yes,” McGirt replied.
The American Suntanning Association disagreed, saying in an email to Eyewitness News that tanning salons should not be the target; rather, the focus should be on overall prevention of sunburn.
The ASA maintains that the greater risk is from tanning beds in non-salon locations, such as homes, gyms and apartment complexes.
Kimberly Luther’s tanning bed use was always in a salon, and she said at the time, she enjoyed it.
“I could lay there 15, 20 minutes, got a fan blowing in - I’d be good to go,” she told Steve. “It was quick and easy.”
Now, though, she tells anyone who will listen to focus on sunscreen, not a suntan.
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