Donna Regan flips through an album containing photos of her daughter Jamie.
"She was our princess. She was our baby girl," she whispers. Jamie was an all-American girl, looking forward to a promising future. But melanoma took that all away.
"She died three months before her 30th birthday," her mother said, as tears fill her eyes. During her short time on earth, Jamie touched many lives.
"Jamie was beautiful. She was vibrant, she was a bundle of energy, always had a smile on her face," said Amanda Asplin, a college student who was friends with Jamie.
Tanning Bed Dangers
Jamie's loved ones are not alone in their grief. Melanoma kills one American every hour, and the numbers are rising. The main culprit is ultraviolet radiation, from the sun or man-made.
Your risk increases if you're fair-skinned, blue or green eyed, have had five sunburns, or one blistering sunburn. Tanning beds increase your risk a whopping 75-percent.
"Jamie's bad habit was using tanning beds. She would go to the tanning bed every day for lunch, seven days a week, and do a 20-minute tan," her friend Asplin recalled.
"Her doctors believe, Jamie believed, that it was from her use of the tanning beds, it was the excessive ultraviolet exposure that caused it," her mother said.
What's in a Mole?
Melanoma begins as a mole on the skin. Then as it grows, it moves deeper where it can hijack your lymphatic vessels, travel through your body and attack major organs.
The key is catching it early and removing the problem before it reaches the lymph nodes. That can put your survival rate at 99-percent.
Once it reaches your lymph nodes, it goes down quickly from there: sixty-five percent if the cancer reaches regional lymph nodes and 16 percent if it makes it to distant lymph nodes or organs.
But Jamie didn't know any of that. In fact, she discovered her melanoma when she was visiting a doctor for an unrelated issue. She happened to mention a mole on her back that would sometime itch and bleed. What happened next was devastating.
"He called me to tell me the diagnosis, and he was crying," her mom recalled. "When you're doctor's crying on the phone, it's a pretty good indication this is serious. I'd never heard of melanoma before."
Early Detection Saves Lives
It's very painful for Donna Regan to relive her daughter's death. But she does it to save lives. In fact, as I write this, I realize she may have saved my life.
Donna's story inspired me to get checked-out myself. So I went to the dermatologist, who removed a suspicious mole, biopsied it, and later informed me it was melanoma. So I went back to the office and the surgeon removed much of the tissue surrounding the mole.
Dr. David Pariser, president of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2009, advises that people get a full body exam every year by their primary care physician or by their dermatologist. Every month people should do their own self-exams.
"Early detection is the key," he said. "If we can find melanoma early, we could cure every melanoma. And what people need to do is everybody needs to be aware of their moles."
What to Look for
Get to the doctor immediately if a mole resembles any of the A, B, C, D, E's of skin cancer. Moles that are:
- Borders are uneven
- Color varies within the mole
- Diameter is larger than a pencil eraser
- Evolves (changes) over time
Melanomas can develop anywhere on the body, even hidden places like in between your toes, under your fingernails and on the scalp. Ask your hair stylist to look carefully for moles when you visit the salon. Some hair stylists do it automatically and may have saved their clients lives.
Debbie McDonough said her hair stylist, Patricia Ingmire-Richard, is one such stylist.
"When I started coming to Patricia, she said, 'You know you've got something there, it needs to be looked at,'" McDonough explained. "And so I did. I took her advice and went to the doctor. And sure enough, it was something he thought needed to be removed."
In the 34 years that Ingmire-Richard has been doing hair, she's found cancer on seven clients.
"Now maybe there's another 100 that I've suggested go to the doctor, and there wasn't anything," Ingmire-Richard admitted. "But my concern is, I'd rather send a thousand people to the doctor than miss one case of cancer."
Tanning's Ticking Time Bomb
Although melanoma deaths are on the rise, that trend can be slowed down by finding and eradicating problem moles early. As a society, perhaps we should embrace the beauty of light-colored skin.
However, for those who insist on having that sun-kissed glow, spray-on tans, or self-tanning lotions are safe. Just keep in mind they do not protect against sun damage, so wear plenty of sunscreen with a fake tan just like you would without a tan.
Try to stay out of the sun as much as possible, particularly avoiding the midday hours outside, when the sun's rays are the harshest.
Finally, whatever you do, stay out of tanning beds.
"People always ask me if I just go a little to the tanning bed is that okay? And my answer to them is I can't tell you how many cigarettes you can smoke before you get lung cancer," Dr. Pariser warned. "And I can't tell you how many times you can go to the tanning bed before you get skin cancer."
"But what I can tell you is it's all cumulative and that every time you get a sunburn and every time you get cosmetic tanning it just adds a little bit more," he added. "And the clock is ticking and at some point the bomb goes off."
Original broadcast Sept. 29, 2010.