Melanoma Awareness From a High Schooler’s Perspective: Where We Are and Where We Need To Be

Not many teenagers know that melanoma is the number one new cancer diagnosed in young adults ages 25-29. It is also difficult to believe that as with many mistakes made at a young age, neglecting sun safety during childhood and adolescence can harm you later in life.

Most of my peers would never dream of lighting a cigarette, yet few would think twice about laying out unprotected at the pool or beach.  Luckily, people are beginning to understand the dangers of indoor tanning, appropriately likening tanning beds to coffins. In previous years, girls would go to tanning beds before school dances. They now settle for a safer (but orange) alternative: spray-tans. Skin cancer awareness has increased, sadly due to the rise in its prevalence, but there is still a ways to go. Most people I know have yet to realize that unprotected sun exposure is just as deadly as a tanning bed.

They're called artificial sun for a reason

They’re called artificial sun for a reason

My paler friends are the most vigilant about sunscreen use. Not one of them wants to get sunburned, so they’re sure to use (and re-apply!) broad-spectrum, high-SPF sunscreen to protect themselves. They do this to escape short-term effects of the sun, but rarely think about the sun’s capability for long-term damage. They are correct in practice, but lack part of the motive for their protective actions. Maybe this is why the occasional girl will still come home from spring break bright red.  They don’t know the danger and how one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence doubles their risk for melanoma.

Many of my friends have olive-toned skin, like I do, that tans easily and rarely burns. It is hard for people with this skin type to think twice about going to the beach and getting a dark tan.  Ironically, we are quick to criticize our fair-skinned friends when they get badly sunburned, but the truth is everyone is at risk for melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Tanning is a sign of our body’s response to damage caused by harmful UV rays. Without sunscreen, UV rays from the sun penetrate the skin and damage DNA. Cells called melanocytes can begin to grow uncontrollably because of change in their genetic makeup, and melanoma (skin cancer of melanocytes) develops. Many people do not see skin cancer as a big deal. It is often thought of as a spot that can be removed and forgotten. However, this is not the case with melanoma, which makes up only 4% of skin cancer cases but 80% of skin cancer deaths. Melanoma spreads extremely rapidly and if not caught and treated early on, will spread to the lymph nodes and vital organs. Stage 0 or 1 melanoma has a 90% cure rate, while Stage 4 melanoma patients have a median life expectancy of less than a year. If more people knew these facts, the melanoma death rate could decrease significantly.

What does the future hold for melanoma awareness? Teenagers have already progressed to the point where most of us avoid tanning beds. The next step is to be better at protecting ourselves from the sun, even though it means giving up tanning in favor of sunscreen, healthy skin, and a melanoma-free life. If we can be truly and completely aware of the sun’s hazards, we can motivate ourselves and others to eradicate this aggressive but completely preventable disease.

About the Author

abouttheauthorI’m Isabella Todaro, a rising junior at Georgetown Visitation in Washington, D.C. I have spent this past week as a volunteer at MRA and learned a lot in the process. My cousin has been working here for two years, so I was already interested in the organization before I decided to volunteer. The experience has been great, as I have learned information that otherwise might have remained unfamiliar to me. Like many people, I used to think that getting sunburned, but not getting a tan, puts people at risk for melanoma. Now I know that both of these dangerous behaviors are risky. After learning this and so much more at MRA, I intend to practice sun safety and let others know why they should, too.

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