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Teens and Melanoma

By: Carl Thornfeldt, MD, FAAD
Posted: April 29, 2011, from the May 2011 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

Lauryl, 17, couldn’t wait for senior prom. She was seeing her mother’s favorite esthetician the week before the event for a deep cleansing back treatment. It would leave her skin polished and smooth under her strapless prom gown. Lauryl’s skin glowed from the tan she had carefully cultivated at the local tanning salon, where she and a few other girlfriends regularly visited the past two winter seasons to keep up their bronze skin tone. On the bed, she placed her face in the cradle and relaxed while the steam warmed her skin. During her treatment, the esthetician began to cleanse and then stopped. “Lauryl,” her esthetician said. “Have you ever noticed this spot on your back? It sort of looks like a little scab, but it’s dark underneath, with irregular borders.”

One week after her senior prom, Lauryl was home, recuperating from Mohs surgery, with a three-inch-long scar. What looked like a tiny scab with a dark base on Lauryl’s upper back had turned out to be malignant melanoma, a cancer that spreads to lymph nodes when the tumor is not detected early and is more than 1 millimeter thick. The doctor had to remove a crusted, pigmented area with a full one-centimeter margin. Fortunately, due to her esthetician’s ability to recognize the early symptoms of melanoma, Lauryl’s cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes or vital organs.

What teens believe vs. the real story

According to a study published by J Robinson, et al, in the Archives of Dermatology in April 2008 called “Indoor Tanning Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behavior Among Young Adults From 1988–2007,” knowledge of the melanoma/skin cancer link with tanning changed from 42% in 1988 to 38% in 1994; up to 87% in 2007. Knowledge of limiting tanning to help prevent melanoma increased to 77% from 1988–1994, but decreased from 1994–2007 to 67%, which was simultaneous with an increase in the attitude that tanned skin looks better than pale skin, from 69% in 1994 to 81% in 2007. Because of this change in perception, it is more important than ever for skin care professionals to spread the word to teen clients about the dangers of sun exposure and the possibility of melanoma. Here are several common teen misperceptions about cancer and sun exposure, followed by the real story; this information should be shared with clients, teens and adults alike. (Editor’s note: To help spread the word about the truth behind sun exposure, make copies pf the PDF that can be accessed on our site at in the Web Exclusives box to provide to every client after services and to consumers at community events.)

Teens believe: Skin cancer only happens to people over 40.

Real story: Although melanoma most commonly appears in adults over the age of 60 after many years of sun exposure, the incidence of melanoma in children, teens and young adults is growing yearly, according to the American Cancer Society. The frightening truth is that, according to the December 2008 issue of Skin & Aging magazine, among young American adults aged 25–29, melanoma is the most commonly diagnosed cancer, and the No. 1 cause of cancer death among 15–20 year olds.