I remember the pain as if it happened yesterday: A blistering sunburn that caused my face to puff up until my eyes were almost swollen shut. I didn’t even recognize myself. For two days I lay in bed dipping a cloth into a bowl of ice water and laying it on my face for some momentary relief from the throbbing heat. The rest of my body was sunburned too, but it was my face that hurt the most. As the days went on, my skin turned from bright red to brown, and eventually peeled off in sheets. It turns out, that sunburn, and several other sunburns I had as a young girl, may be to blame for the skin cancer I’ve had as an adult.
My Skin Cancer Diagnosis
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., with some 5 million cases being treated each year. This year, I was one of them. I made an appointment with the dermatologist to do what they call a skin survey — that’s where the doctor looks over every square inch of your skin to make sure there aren’t any suspicious moles or spots that need attention.
When I made my appointment, I knew I had at least one such spot, right on my shinbone. It turned out to be a basal cell cancer, and so did two other spots in the back of my leg that I hadn’t even noticed.
Nobody wants to hear the word “cancer” but the doctor assured me of any cancer I could get, basal cell was the best scenario because it’s easily removed and doesn’t usually spread to other areas. On the other hand, if you let it go, it can become disfiguring.
Also, once you have a basal cell cancer, you are at higher risk of getting more, and also at higher risk of melanoma. That’s the really bad skin cancer. The one that can spread to other parts of your body before you even know you have cancer.
I kept thinking, “I don’t really spend much time in the sun. I wonder why I got these?”
The doctor told me those blistering sunburns in my youth may have been the cause of my skin cancers. In fact, scientists say sustaining five or more sunburns in youth increases lifetime melanoma risk by 80 percent.
That’s scary to hear for my generation. When we were kids, nobody used sunscreen. We’d go to the lake for a long weekend and not only did we not apply sunscreen, we’d slather ourselves in baby oil to attract the sun. If all this sounds familiar, you should call the dermatologist.
Chatting With the Founder of Kahuna Bay Tan
Andrea House will tell you how important it is to get yourself checked. She was just 29 when she was diagnosed with melanoma.
“My mother noticed a spot on my back and kept after me until I got it checked out,” she says.
A few days later, House was in the hospital. Doctors had to remove a large mass in her back, along with 42 lymph nodes during a four and half hour-surgery. They told her she had a five-year life expectancy. That was 14 years ago! At that time, House was a busy sales and marketing rep. She was also a sun-lover who was proud of the golden tan she kept year-round living in Florida. But her cancer experience was so life changing, she not only gave up sunshine, she gave up her six-figure job to start a line of sunless tanning products: Kahuna Bay Tan.
What started as a mobile spray-tan operation in Florida grew more quickly than House expected, and she and her husband moved out of the hot Florida sun and back home to Northwest Ohio, where their operation grew. Their team of scientists has developed and perfected 15 different colors of spray tan formula so that whatever skin tone you have, they can find a shade of tan that looks natural for you.
They currently supply more than 17,000 salons in the U.S. with sunless tanning products, mostly spray-tan formulas that those salons use on clients. They are the supplier to Miss America, Mrs. America and the Academy Awards. Their products are natural and safe enough to use on “Toddlers and Tiaras” contestants as well.
Kahuna Bay Tan products are also available in dozens of other countries around the world. Who knew one of the largest suppliers of sunless tanning products around the world was based right here in Northwest Ohio, where we joke about hardly ever seeing the sun?
House is passionate about raising skin cancer awareness, and educating people about the dangers of the sun and indoor tanning equipment.
“If you want to feel good, there’s no easier, safer way to do it than sunless tanning,” House says. “If I would have known 30 years ago what I know now, and someone would have told me you can die from this, I wouldn’t have done it.“
House receives several calls a week from other people who have been diagnosed with melanoma, and she always takes time to share her story and give them hope.
“So many people, when they get the news, start dying,” House says. “The mind is such a powerful thing and I believe in it.”
But there are patients on the end of the spectrum as well.
“I hear the good stories every day too,” says House. “I have a client who is 80 years old, diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma 30 years ago and is still going strong. Doctors know statistics but those statistics take variables from all sides. I have the attitude ‘I’m going to beat this!’”
For 20 years, Chrys Peterson was the face of WTOL news, anchoring the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. She is now a correspondent for ProMedica HealthConnect and spokeswoman for Friends for Life, a monthly newsletter for women that offers health and wellness advice with a focus on cancer prevention.