That“Healthy Glow”? Your Skin’s Response to Sun Damage

Maryann Gerber loved the way she looked with a tan. As a teenager, she visited a tanning salon almost every week. A few years later, she noticed a pink mole on her face. The look of it bothered her, so she visited a plastic surgeon to have it removed, only to discover it was a malignant melanoma— the most deadly form of skin cancer.
“I was vain about having a tan and that same vanity drove me to the plastic surgeon when I noticed a mole. Vanity almost killed me and vanity saved my life.”

Gerber was diagnosed with stage III melanoma at the age of 24. Since no one in her family had a history of skin cancer, she and her physicians believe tanning led to her disease. Typically, melanoma at such a young age is caused by a genetic mutation. “My grandfather was a farmer and worked out in the sun all his life, but he wore hats and long sleeves. He never got skin cancer but I had it as a young woman—I’m certain because of tanning.”

Two surgeries later, Gerber is left with a six-inch scar that runs down her left cheek.
“It used to bother me, but now I wear it as a badge of honor. It gives me the opportunity to talk about skin cancer and sun safety when people ask me about it.”

Melanoma is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the skin cells called melanocytes. These cells make melanin, the pigment that gives skin its natural color. When skin is exposed to the sun, melanocytes react by making more pigment, causing the skin to tan, or darken.

However, melanoma can occur anywhere on the body, including areas not exposed to UV radiation. In men, melanoma is often found on the trunk (the area from the shoulders to the hips) or the head and neck. In women, melanoma forms most often on the arms and legs. Melanoma is most common in adults, but it is sometimes found in children and adolescents.

These are risk factors for melanoma:

• Having a fair complexion, which includes the following:

• Fair skin that freckles and burns easily, does not tan, or tans poorly

• Blue or green or other light-colored eyes

• Red or blond hair

• Being exposed to natural sunlight or artificial sunlight (such as from tanning beds) over long periods of time

• Having a history of many blistering sunburns, especially as a child or teenager

• Having several large or many small moles

• Having a family history of unusual moles (atypical nevus syndrome)

• Having a family or personal history of melanoma • Being white

While these risk factors increase the chances of developing melanoma, anyone can get it, including people with dark skin.

Check with your health care provider if you have any of these red flags:

• A mole that

• Changes in size, shape, or color

• Has irregular edges or borders

• Is more than one color

• Is asymmetrical (if the mole is divided in half, the two halves are different in size or shape)

• Itches

• Oozes, bleeds, or is ulcerated (a hole forms in the skin when the top layer of cells breaks down and the tissue below shows through)

• A change in pigmented (colored) skin

• Satellite moles (new moles that grow near an existing mole)

If you have concerns about skin cancer, your healthcare provider is your best resource. More information is also available through the Huntsman Cancer Learning Center at 1-888-424-2100 or e-mail at cancerinfo@hci.utah.edu.