By Langley Grace Wallace
Over the past 40 years, melanoma has increased 800% in young women and 400% in young men. Recently, melanoma has become the most common cancer among 25-29 year olds, and even teenagers are developing this deadly skin cancer.
As a teenager who spends a lot of time in the sun, these statistics shocked me. I began researching melanoma online, and found that I was a perfect target. If you have pale skin, freckles, blue eyes, and red or blonde hair (all of which apply to me), you are more likely to get melanoma than someone without these physical traits.
The author, practicing sun-safety at age five. Photo by Julie Langley Campos
I’ve always been encouraged to practice sun-safe habits to lower my risk of sun damage and developing melanoma. My aunt, Dr. Melissa Langley, is a Nashville dermatologist and skin expert. She began educating me and my parents about the sun and skin practically from the moment I was born! From a very young age, I wore sun-protective clothing, hats, and LOTS of sunscreen any time I was outdoors.
In the last year, every patient Dr. Langley diagnosed with melanoma was a woman age 18-24, a disturbing trend as this deadly form of skin cancer becomes increasingly common among young people. “More young adults will be diagnosed with melanoma – as long as they think they are too young to get skin cancer and then wait too long to get their skin checked,” Dr. Langley says.
Teenagers and young adults not only believe that they are too young to develop melanoma; they also think that it is a near-harmless kind of cancer. What they do not understand is that melanoma can actually spread to the lymph nodes and other organs, and can eventually kill you if it is not caught in the early stages. “My patients don’t think about getting cancer, and they especially don’t think about dying from it,” says Dr. Langley.
Many of my friends will spend their summer days lying out in the sun at the beach or by the pool. They know that tanning isn’t good for them, but they don’t understand the damage it does to their skin (and how that damage increases their risk of developing melanoma). Dr. Langley stresses that tanning (outdoor or indoor) is “ignorant.” The browning of the skin as a result of ultraviolet radiation is the skin’s response to injury: the skin produces more melanin to protect itself. When you tan, you are permanently injuring your skin.
Because it’s so apparent that tanning is extremely harmful to the skin, I asked Dr. Langley how she gets her patients to stop tanning, “I give them the facts: tanning leads to melanoma, which is very aggressive and deadly.” She revealed that her most effective strategy is a comparison of tanning to smoking. “I ask my patients if they would ever smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. I usually get the same response from everyone, ‘No! That is so bad for your lungs.’ I tell them, ‘Tanning has the same effect on your skin as smoking has on your lungs.’ They often realize how damaging tanning is and stop.”
Unfortunately, tanning isn’t the only problem: one blistering sunburn as a child or adolescent doubles your risk for developing melanoma. Teenagers and young adults are especially negligent about sun protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that only one-third of American youths use effective sun protection and less than half of all teenagers use sunscreen. I have observed that even the ones who are mindful enough to use sunscreen most likely don’t use a high enough SPF, or don’t reapply sunscreen regularly. Ultimately, protecting yourself from the sun is just as important as skipping the tanning appointment.
How can we prevent young adults from developing melanoma? Dr. Langley says, “The best way to prevent melanoma is to educate people about it. I believe that education about the sun’s damaging rays and skin cancer should start from birth.” (Dr. Langley also advises monthly self-skin examinations, in order to check for new or changing moles).
Maybe I’m living proof that this approach works. I took it upon myself to start educating people about the sun and skin. When I’m at the pool with my friends or playing sports outside, I’m always the person that nags everyone about how important it is to apply –and then reapply– sunscreen. I think that it is vital for more teenagers and young adults to get involved in educating their peers about the sun and skin cancer. Teenagers are much more willing to take advice from friends than from a doctor.
Melanoma prevention is not just about telling your friends to wear sunscreen; it’s about making a larger impact. Teenagers can share their thoughts and strategies through social media (whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or a blog) and use these channels to educate people about skin cancer. Because a lot of melanoma prevention is about changing habits, perhaps the change needs to start with young people instead of older people? We are young – which gives us the time to make smart decisions about tanning and activities in the sun before we damage our skin too much. Being young might be what could help us to make a difference in the fight against melanoma!
About the Author
I’m Langley Grace Wallace, 14, a rising freshman at Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC. My interest in skin cancer began a few years ago. I started playing tennis competitively, and spent most of my summer days outside in the hot sun. With a fair complexion, I realized that I had to be extremely careful – or I would get sunburned quickly. That led me to wonder about my risk for developing skin cancer, especially melanoma. This past spring, while researching the new immunotherapy approach to treating melanoma, I came across the Melanoma Research Alliance. I was immediately intrigued by its efforts to find a cure. As soon as the school year ended, I came to MRA’s office to learn more about the organization and its work.