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Melanoma is on the Rise Among Women Under Age 39

Jessica Cosden had melanoma while in college in 2006.
Jessica Cosden had melanoma while in college in 2006.
Jessica Cosden had melanoma while in college in 2006.
Jessica Cosden had melanoma while in college in 2006.

820 Floridians could die from melanoma this year. It’s the most lethal form of skin cancer. A recent study cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionsays 6000 cases of melanoma are estimated to be related to indoor tanning in the U.S. each year. This story looks at one group of people seeing a dramatic rise in the number of these cases. They’re young women and teens. And they’re the same group also going to tanning salons more often.

JessicaCosdenof Fort Myers was a 22-year-old senior at Florida Atlantic University in 2006. She was a Middle-Eastern studies major. She worked part-time at a health food store. And she tanned.

“It was a rigorous curriculum so I studied a lot. And I used a tanning bed a lot,” said Cosden. “The year before that I really used it a lot. There was a tanning salon right across the street from the dorms in the college so a lot of kids from my school used the tanning beds even though we were ten minutes away from a beach.”

That spring a cold brought Cosden to the college clinic where the nurse saw a spot on her ear. She referred Cosden to a dermatologist, who also found a spot on her shoulder. Both were melanoma. So instead of walking across the stage for graduation, she was having surgery.

“So I missed graduation,” said Cosden. “And of course the first thing I thought was did I do this by using tanning beds? And of course I don’t know. But no one else in my family has ever had skin cancer so that’s just the link that I made and of course I felt guilty.”

The National Cancer Institute says melanoma among white women ages 15 to 39 doubled from 1980 to 2004. Nearly one out of every three women that age visits indoor tanning salons each year.

In her Naples office Dermatologist Dr. Kathryn Russell examined a patient who has had many problematic moles removed.

Russell said most of her patients with melanoma are in their upper 60’s but her practice is seeing an increase in people with melanoma who are much younger.

“I have patients in their 20’s and 30’s who have metastatic melanoma," said Russell. "Some of them had a mole that changed and they just waited.”

She warns people who have more than 50 moles, family history of skin cancer, and fair skin to cover up and stay away from tanning beds.

“Particularly the incidence of melanoma rising is on the trunk of young women and that is thought to be directly correlated to tanning beds,” said Dr. Russell. “And if you have a lot of sun exposure it also increases your melanoma risk.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed more than a dozen studies conducted over many years on the use of indoor tanning equipment. It found the risk of melanoma increased 75 percent when people started using tanning beds before they turned 30. Almost every state regulates indoor tanning for minors. Florida requires parental permission.

So in the 2015 legislative session Hollywood Democratic State Senator Eleanor Sobel tried to ban minors from using tanning beds but she could not find a House sponsor for her bill.  

“I believe with the passage of this bill we will save many, many lives of young women and young men who believe that indoor tanning is healthy or will help them look better when I know they could use sprays or makeup to get that glow that they want,” said Senator Sobel.

The senator, whose husband is a dermatologist and has her own line of skin care products, is already looking for a House sponsor for next year. She said she believes she’s battling a strong tanning industry lobby.

A Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology study found in 2012, the Florida Department of Health licensed more than 1200 indoor tanning facilities.  Representing the industry is Joe Levy, the scientific advisor for the American Suntanning Association. He acknowledged the World Health Organization and a U.S. government report dating as far back as 1997 say  ultraviolet light from sunbeds causes cancer but he said the definition of a carcinogen isn’t clear.

“Being a carcinogen doesn’t mean that a substance or exposure or circumstance is carcinogenic in its intended dose so what it’s saying is overexposure may be carcinogenic but that doesn’t mean that any exposure is carcinogenic and that on that list there’s only one item that humans need in order to live and that’s UV exposure,” said Levy.

Levy, a journalist by trade, said he uses tanning salons about thirty times a year. He said the Association’s rules said people who will only burn should not be allowed to use tanning beds.  He said there are also other rules that make the industry more responsible than it gets credit for.

“There is more money made telling people stay out of the sun and to avoid it then there will ever be made by interests such as indoor tanning facilities who want people to get it in a moderate and responsible way,” said Levy.

And as Levy points out people get melanoma who have never been to a tanning salon. Like Ava Kaplan. The Naples resident was 19 when she went to the dermatologist for one thing and the doctor found something else on her shoulder.

“A week later the doctor called and said this is malignant melanoma and we need to operate,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan had been to the beach often.

Ava Kaplan had melanoma when she was 19.
Credit Amy Tardif
Ava Kaplan had melanoma when she was 19.

“I wanted to have a suntan and a redhead with a suntan really is nothing more than a burn and so that’s what would happen maybe week after week,” said Kaplan.

She said it changed her attitude as doctors monitored her for about 15 years.

“I think 19-year-olds don’t need a smack of reality like that,” said Kaplan. “What a strange thing to have that’s on the surface of your body that can kill you so quickly and so horribly and you could have prevented it.”

Naples Dermatologist Dr. Kathryn Russell said melanoma can be fatal but if you catch it early chances are you will be ok.

“And our numbers of even how we’re treating melanoma have improved drastically,” said Dr. Russell. “Just in the last 15 to 20 years we have many new medications even if you have advanced melanoma. It’s when people wait and let them go that it turns into a much bigger problem.”

She says look for the A,B,C,D,E and U of a mole. Asymmetric or irregular border, strange color like pink, black or blue, a diameter greater than 6 millimeters, is it evolving or changing or is it the ugly ducking mole – the one that looks different from all the rest.

And if you really want some color, Dr. Russell suggests a spray tan.

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Amy Tardif is WGCU’s FM Station Manager and News Director. She oversees a staff of 10 full and part-time people and interns in news, production and the radio reading service. Her program Lucia's Letter on human trafficking received a coveted Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a gold medal from the New York Festivals and 1 st place for Best Documentary from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. She was the first woman in radio to Chair RTDNA, having previously served as Chair-Elect and the Region 13 representative on its Board of Directors for which she helped write an e-book on plagiarism and fabrication. She also serves on the FPBS Board of Directors and served on the PRNDI Board of Directors from 2007 -2012. Tardif has been selected twice to serve as a managing editor for NPR's Next Generation Radio Project. She served on the Editorial Integrity for Public Media Project helping to write the section on employee's activities beyond their public media work. She was the producer and host of Gulf Coast Live Arts Editionfor 8 years and spent 14 years asWGCU’slocal host of NPR's Morning Edition. Amy spent five years as producer and managing editor ofWGCU-TV’sformer monthly environmental documentary programs In Focus on the Environmentand Earth Edition.Prior to joiningWGCUPublic Media in 1993, she was the spokesperson for the Fort Myers Police Department, spent 6 years reporting and anchoring for television stations in Fort Myers and Austin, Minnesota and reported forWUSFPublic Radio in Tampa. Amy has two sons in college and loves fencing, performing in local theater and horseback riding.