Paying a Hefty Price for a Killer Tan

By now, we all know it: Tanning beds can give you skin cancer. And yet, many people still use them, thinking, “How bad can a few times be?” or “I need a base tan so I don’t burn at the beach.”

That line of thinking might be tempting, but it’s dead wrong. Lori Sumerel, 53, learned the hard way. Her quest for bronzed skin in her 20s resulted in skin cancer that left her with permanent damage to her eye and a surgical scar on her leg, constant reminders of the dangers of tanning bed use.

“I laid in a tanning bed pretty regularly in my 20s,” she says. “My mother used to get so angry with me. She kept telling me, ‘You’re going to get skin cancer.’ But I was young and stupid and vain. I grew up at a time when you laid in the sun with baby oil on and used tanning beds.”

Sumerel was diagnosed almost 20 years ago with melanoma. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. More than 87,000 Americans will be diagnosed this year.

At the time of Sumerel’s diagnosis, doctors removed a large portion of skin from her leg to treat the cancer. But even after successful treatment then, Sumerel was diagnosed years later with ocular melanoma—that is, melanoma in the eye. This time she received radioactive plaque therapy, which involves attaching a radioactive plaque to the back of the eyeball, where it can deliver a high dose of radiation to a tumor. The plaque is removed days later.

“I lived in a hotel up there in Chapel Hill for four days. It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” Sumerel says.

“I lived in a hotel up there in Chapel Hill for four days. It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” Sumerel says. “The plaque that was on my eye was the entire size of my eyeball and it was made of gold, and so it was so much pressure. They sew it to your eyeball.”

Now that it’s out, she still has to have the eye with the tumor examined every six months. That will continue for the rest of her life.

“I’ve had it measured four times, and it’s only shrunk once,” she says. “Because it was so small to begin with, it may not shrink anymore, but as long as it doesn’t grow or change in a negative way, then I am fine.”

Ocular melanoma is the most common cancer of the eye in adults. It is diagnosed in about 2,500 adults every year in the United States.

While her cancer is under control, Sumerel suffers from the side effects of treatment.

“The radiation caused damage,” she says. “I have a lot of scar tissue; therefore I have constant severe dry eye. My eye hurts all the time, and I have to get used to living with the pain. It feels like there is something always in my eye. But that’s OK. I’m alive.”

It has also changed some of her everyday activities. She has to limit her time in front of a computer to five hours a day to prevent eye strain, and she even had to quit her job as a paralegal. Now, Sumerel is on a mission to warn others about the dangers of tanning beds.

“If I know anyone who wants to use a tanning bed, I use myself as an example of why not to do so. I tell them to just self-tan from a bottle. I didn’t listen to my mom, and they don’t usually listen to me,” she says. “I am sure the tanning bed did not help, because you are supposed to wear those goggles, and I would take them off because I was beyond stupid and I didn’t want those white lines around my eyes.”

One thing that has changed since her youth: Tanning beds are banned for use by anyone younger than 18 in North Carolina and many other states.

Robert Wehbie, MD, PhD, an oncologist with UNC REX Cancer Care, says melanoma may take decades to develop after ultraviolet exposure.

“Tanning bed-related melanomas occur later in life, not just a few years after exposure,” he says.

And forget the myth that indoor tanning can help prevent sunburn, thereby protecting you from melanoma.

“Commercial tanning beds emit UVA light. All UV exposure increases the risk of melanoma, including outdoor tanning and tanning beds. Tanning in a booth does not provide protection from skin damage or the development of skin cancers,” Dr. Wehbie says.

In fact, the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2009 classified ultraviolet light emitted from tanning beds as a human carcinogen. Studies showed that women who used tanning beds were two to six times more likely to get melanoma compared with women who had never used them. The risk consistently increased for women who started using tanning beds before age 25 and for those who reported using a tanning bed more than 10 times.

Sumerel doesn’t need to hear the stats to know the dangers of tanning beds.

“I’m a big advocate for not using tanning beds,” she says, “because I’m living proof of their risks.”

Be sure to conduct regular examinations of your skin. If you notice any new or unusual growths, talk to your doctor. Find a primary care provider or dermatologist near you.