When she’s not talking about her own frightening experience, she is telling everyone who will listen — and some who’d rather not — about the dangers of too much sun, too much time spent in the tanning bed and too little sunscreen applied to every inch where either is likely to reach.
She talks to friends, to strangers, to teenagers daydreaming of proms and summer beach trips. She talks to parents, doctors and untold masses via her Facebook awareness group, Spread the Lotion. She’s recently taken her admittedly “loud mouth” to the state capitol where she and like-minded advocates lobbied for House Bill 179, which aimed to ban minors from using tanning beds.
“I just want to do something that’ll make a difference,” Bain says. “If somebody can learn from my stupidity, then I’m all for it.”
It wasn’t but a few years ago when Bain would have been among the choir she now preaches to. Talk to Bain for a few minutes and the conversation ultimately turns to the sun and her memories of a childhood spent outside camping, swimming and cheerleading. She remembers a time out at the Little River Campground when she ran out of sunblock and her grandmother smeared her with mayonnaise.
“I still can’t stand the smell of it,” Bain says, laughing. “But if you’re in a bind, it works.”
And when the rain or cold weather chased her indoors, she tanned there too. Bain, 34, was in high school when she first started going to local tanning beds.
“I did it all the time … we all did,” she said. “I’d buy a package in January and would go through May. I wasn’t ever all that worried. I figured it’s only skin cancer. That’s no big deal. And if I ever get it, they’ll just cut it out.”
‘I know it’s not smart’
Skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, malignant melanoma — is the most common form of cancer in the United States with more than 2 million diagnosed every year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
An estimated 3,170 deaths from non-melanoma skin cancers will occur in the United States in 2013.
But unlike other cancers, there’s little doubt as to what causes skin cancer — UV light, either from the sun or other sources, including tanning beds. And while direct, long-term exposure to the sun can be avoided, it’s those who intentionally put themselves in harm’s way by regularly laying in a tanning bed that studies have concluded are at the greatest risk.
Just one indoor tanning session increases users’ chances of developing melanoma by 20 percent, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an affiliate of the World Health Organization, includes ultraviolet (UV) tanning devices in its Group 1, a list of the most dangerous cancer-causing substances. Group 1 also includes agents such as plutonium, cigarettes and solar UV radiation.
“Tanning beds cause skin cancers,” said Dr. Shelley Ray, dermatologist and medical director of Prestige Medical Spa in Oxford. “They cause premature aging of the skin — brown spots, wrinkles, dilated blood vessels, mottled pigmentation, purpura (easy bruising of the skin), rough and leather-like skin texture.”
Sunlight and indoor tanning damage the skin the same way, Ray explains. “Basically, when we get a sunburn or sun exposure, our DNA in our skin cells is damaged and mutates. We have repair systems that cut out and repair the damaged DNA. Over time, these repairs don’t function correctly and the damaged DNA produces cancerous cells.”
Nearly 30 million people tan indoors in the U.S. every year, and of those, 2-3 million are teenagers. Among them is Amanda Morris, who is well aware of the risks, but isn’t too worried.
“I know it’s not smart, that I could get cancer,” said the 18-year-old Morris, “but tanning is something that makes me feel good about myself. I don’t want cancer … but I want a tan, so it’s a choice I make.”
The sunscreen fairy
For more than a decade, Michelle Deese Bain made the same choice, thinking little of the consequences, until 2007 when she noticed a strange growth on her back.
A few days after her 32nd birthday, Bain went to the dermatologist, who after one look rushed her over to a pathologist for tests. The next day, she received a phone call — it was cancer, malignant melanoma. Within a week, the growth was removed, along with an inch-worth of tissue on either side to see if the cancer had spread.
Bain is cancer-free. But unlike the opinions of her youth, when the cancer was removed it left behind a lesson that Bain continues to share. Such a scare was probably the only thing that would have kept her out of the sun and out of the tanning bed. The day she got the call from the pathologist, Bain had $25 set aside for a tanning package.
“If they had called me and said everything was fine, I would have gone straight to the tanning bed,” she said. “Melanoma is preventable. Most cancers aren’t. Kids don’t understand that. They’re all about instant gratification. But I’m here to tell them, it’s not worth it. Fifteen to 20 years from now, it’ll catch up with you.”
Bain has become an advocate for protection from the sun and avoidance of tanning beds. When she’s not visiting health fairs at area schools to talk about the realities of skin cancer, she can be found spraying lotion on the necks of passing strangers. During the Noble Street Festival, Bain became the unofficial “Sunscreen Fairy,” making sure everyone was well protected.
She tells her story via her Facebook group while promoting skin cancer awareness and a Relay for Life team called Michelle’s Melanoma Army.
“I just want people to be safe,” she said. “Safe and smart … it’s really not that hard.”
As owner of Always Summer Tanning Salon in Oxford, Kelli Perrelli understands the potential risks and keeps an eye out for her customers, who don’t always keep an eye out for themselves.
“There is a danger” she said. “You can overdo it. My job is to keep everyone as safe as possible. When you come in here, you’re like family. I would rather see them less than more.”
Among those who self-tan, Perrelli is known for her self-regulating practices. Alabama is one of a handful of states that doesn’t regulate the facilities that house tanning beds. In Georgia, no one under the age of 14 can use a tanning bed and operators must provide eye protection. The same goes for Mississippi, with the additional regulation that the operator must limit time to bed manufacturer’s maximum exposure recommendation.
Only 15 other states — including Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Kansas and Oklahoma — have no tanning bed restrictions at all. This is why Bain and other advocates went to Montgomery in April in support of House Bill HP179. Representative Ronald Johnson (R-Coosa) has a bill, which seeks to ban anyone under the age of 18 from using a commercial tanning bed, among other restrictions.
But no such bill is necessary at Always Summer. Perrelli doesn’t allow anyone under the age of 18 to tan unless registered by their parents, and everyone must wear protective eye wear. In addition, Perrelli advises everyone to use lotion and lip balm in the beds and sells “high-end” tanning products for added protection.
“I want to take care of my clients,” said Perrelli, who has owned Always Summer since 2002. “I only want what’s best for them. And I’ve lost business because of it. But if they want to burn … they can do it somewhere else.”
As for Bain, she’s coming to terms with being a little less sun-loving.
It’s not so bad,” she says with a laugh. “I’d rather be pale and alive than tan and 6-feet under.”
To learn more about skin cancer prevention and detection, visit the Skin Cancer Foundation’s website at www.skincancer.org.
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.