If We Banned Tanning Beds, Millions of People Wouldn’t Get Skin Cancer—Here’s What You Can Do

Given that more than two people die of skin cancer in the United States every hour, it seems like a bit of a no-brainer to cancel tanning beds, right? New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association makes a compelling argument for instituting a total ban on the practice. A ban on indoor tanning beds for the next generation could avert 448,000 melanomas and 9.7 million keratinocyte carcinomas, according to a meta-analysis. That's a lot of cancer.

"It is not the number of people, it is the number of skin cancers—people can get multiple skin cancers," says author of the research Louisa Gordon, PhD, associate professor at Queensland University of Technology. "The numbers are large because it’s modeled for large populations over a long time—for their remainder of their lives or 60-70 years."

Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says many of his patients, especially those in older generations, are suffering the consequences of having used tanning beds. "Unfortunately, those who are most at risk are people who may not be thinking about what the future will bring," he says. "Knowing how harmful tanning beds are, I personally support the idea of banning the use of them."

Skin cancer survivor Carla Rake tells me her life would've been significantly changed for the better had there been a ban in place during those years in which she wasn't thinking much about the future. "I began using tanning beds around age 18 for about 10 years," she says. "I would go to the tanning salon as often as three times per week to get some color and maintain my sun-kissed glow year-round."

Then, at age 41, Rake was diagnosed with melanoma. Initially, she thought it would be no big deal, that she'd get the mole removed and be done. "I quickly learned that is not the case," she says. "My life was turned upside down."

September of that year was a blur for Rake, a frenzy of meetings with oncologists, CT scans, blood work, MRIs, X-rays, and a PET scan, among other tests and sugeries. "My first surgery was scheduled for October 1 of that year," she says. "Dr. Jeffrey Farma performed a wide excision to remove the cancerous tissue and to ensure it didn’t spread further. A sentinel lymph node biopsy would confirm whether it had spread to my lymph nodes." The surgery went well, she says, but unfortunately the cancer had already spread. "This required an additional surgery called a lymph node dissection in which all the lymph nodes were removed from my left groin," says Rake. "At that point, I was diagnosed stage 3A melanoma."

Recovery, which required a home health nurse, took three months, and Rake missed a full 12 weeks of work. "My journey was far from over," she says. "My drug therapy, called immunotherapy, began in mid-January. Unfortunately, I experienced every side effect. Three weeks into my therapy, I decided to stop the drug. I currently see my oncologists and dermatologist every six months and my primary care doctor every three months." Fortunately, Rake has had no recurrence of melanoma, though she did have a basal cell carcinoma—another type of skin cancer—removed recently.

Rake had to learn the hard way, but she hopes others will not. "Our lives have changed in many ways and we are now a sun-smart family—we can be seen outside wearing hats, sunglasses, and sunblock and seeking shade at every opportunity," she says. "I can only imagine the  difference in my life if tanning beds were banned. I never would have had to endure surgeries, treatments and numerous CT scans and brain MRIs. Australia has a total ban on tanning beds and I hope the USA will soon follow."

Want to support a tanning bed ban? Various legislation is in play, and The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends writing your state and local representatives to let them know you support the cause. And if you utilized tanning beds in the past (like me!) and are concerned about your health, Dr. Zeichner recommends visiting a board-certified dermatologist annually for mole checks and getting any new or changing spots looked at ASAP. He also, of course, recommends wearing sunscreen daily.

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