Deadly Skin Cancer Rises with Use of Tanning Beds
Robert A. Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC
Yesterday I had a conversation with the patient who suffers from fibromyalgia. Heat helps her pain. She is young and attractive in appearance, and likes to look her best. She has helped her pain and her appearance by lying in a tanning bed. This young lady is one of a growing cohort at risk, as women under age 40 are most frequently affected by the rising incidence of melanoma, according to a Mayo Clinic study published in the April issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
This study examined decades of records in a single county in Minnesota. It focused on first-time diagnoses of melanoma inpatients from 18 to 39 years of age from 1970 to 2009. The long period of time strengthens this study's findings, so it is very significant that melanoma cases increased eightfold among women and fourfold among men during this time.
We live in a society that rewards physical attractiveness. Over and over we see people, mostly women, engaging in behaviors that sacrifice health to have the "right look." We see it in fad diets that sacrifice nutrition. We see it in high impact exercise programs that lead to early arthritic degeneration in knees and spines. Now this trend that results in a life-threatening cancer appears to be linked to the use of tanning beds. The authors of the Mayo study note, "Young women are more likely than young men to participate in activities that increase risk for melanoma including voluntary exposure to artificial sunlamps."
The literature on this topic describes the "Jersey Shore" effect. Characters portrayed on that television program are seen as attractive and healthy because they tend to have deep tans. Young people seek that look in order to make themselves feel attractive. It is unfortunate that peer pressure can lead to such a deadly disease. The effect of culture is all the more apparent in light of another government-funded study released this week that shows that cancers generally are trending downward, while melanoma is trending upward, despite a lucrative sun block industry.
I have pointed out health behaviors before in this column that have generated controversy or backlash, and this one likely will from one or more owners of tanning bed establishments. As you can imagine, the Indoor Tanning Association, an organization that promotes this industry, strongly contends that there is no relationship between ultraviolet light exposure from the sun or a sun bed and melanoma. This assertion, however, runs contrary to objective evidence.
Some exposure to sunlight is actually healthy. Vitamin D, which is required for bone health and many other physiological processes, is manufactured by skin in response to ultraviolet light exposure. What, you might ask, is the difference between sunlight and a tanning bed?
When I talk to patients about this issue, I point out that exposure to natural sunlight in moderation with appropriate sun block is healthier than a tanning bed in my opinion because sunlight is filtered by the atmosphere. There is no filtering effect from a tanning bed. This is a matter of individual judgment. Every time someone chooses to use a tanning bed, the chance of melanoma is increased. That risk is real with sunlight as well, but it was the use of tanning beds that showed up as a strong risk factor in the Mayo study.
Melanoma is a very serious life-threatening condition. The man who installed my x-ray unit was claimed by this disease. I knew a dynamic young pastor who felt to this disease and left his family and his congregation too early. Everyone should take it seriously. If you have a suspicious mole or skin lesion that does not heal, go to a doctor and get it checked. If it looks dangerous, you will be referred to a dermatologist. You may think that a visit to the doctor is expensive, but that expense will pale compared to that of an undiagnosed melanoma.
My advice to teenagers and young adults is simple: find a way to get comparable in your own skin!