‘I Was Diagnosed With Melanoma In My 20s’

megan, a survivor of melanoma

Young people want to believe that tanning is harmless. But Megan Putman, a 29-year-old physician assistant who works in oncology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, is proof that that’s just not the case. Megan not only works with individuals living with cancer every day, she herself is a survivor of both Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (which she was diagnosed with at 24 and has since been cleared of) and Stage IA melanoma–the latter of which Megan credits to summer spent in the sun and time spent in a tanning bed.

As a teenager and college student, Megan says, she swam competitively, and spent her summers lifeguarding and coaching swimming. And during that time, she admits, she was “horrible about wearing sunscreen.”

I secretly didn’t mind getting burnt because I always wanted a great tan.  I also went to tanning beds – usually in the spring to prepare for the summer or if I had a big event to attend in high school and/or college.

Megan was just 27 when she discovered that a mole on her thigh had changed. Luckily, she got it checked out right away–and was diagnosed with skin cancer.

The melanoma was excised from my thigh and since it was an early stage melanoma, I didn’t need to have lymph nodes biopsied. The surgery was over two years ago and I haven’t had any signs of recurrence or any new melanomas since then. I will be at higher risk for the rest of my life now of developing another melanoma – and being young still, this is a very real reality for me!

And while the tanning industry is quick to deny that indoor tanning is any more dangerous than outdoor, the fact is that indoor tanning allows young women the opportunity to expose themselves to harmful UVA and UVB rays year-round. And all that time can really add up. Looking back now, Megan regrets not using sunscreen during those summers in the sun, but, she says, the tanning beds definitely played a role.

I wish I would have been better about using sun protection and staying away from those awful tanning beds. Tanning beds, in particular, are so, so bad – and the benefit does not outweigh risk, especially for young girls.

As someone who works with cancer patients, day in and day out, Megan’s also quick to advice that, while on TV and in the media, skin cancer is often treated as a blip (you may recall that Grey’s Anatomy‘s Izzie was given only a few months to live and then miraculously recovered), it’s much more than that.

Melanoma is very serious and it doesn’t just disappear. Outside of surgical excision, there are really no other good treatments for skin cancer. That means, once skin cancer spreads, your chances of survival begin to dramatically drop. Plus, skin biopsies and surgical scars are far less attractive and PERMANENT!

Still on the fence about whether or not you should be getting that “base tan” before Memorial Day weekend? Here’s Megan’s parting advice–and remember, she’s a medical professional.

These days we are very fortunate to have the internet. We can Google anything and get answers in split seconds. You will not find any legit information sites that say tanning bed use is safe and does not increase ones risk for skin cancer. There are great consumer resources available from the Skin Cancer Foundation and the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention. I truly believe that you are only helping yourself by taking the time to become a more informed consumer.

Thanks to Dan Collins at Mercy Medical Center for helping out with this story.

Image: Megan and her husband.

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    • fig

      This, sadly is my story… minus the tanning beds. A close friend of mine from high school has a similar story – again, minus the tanning beds, and with a much tougher prognosis.
      You don’t have to go anywhere near a tanning bed to get melanoma.
      Having melanoma in my 20s absolutely rocked my world – but in the end, I think I’m in a better place now than I was then.

      I just wish I didn’t have to get cancer to start caring about my health. And I wish some of my friends could learn from my experiences, instead of continuing to treat their bodies terribly.

    • Michael Meso

      How often do you check your skin for signs of cancer?

      Melanoma can be cured if it is diagnosed and treated when the tumor is thin and has not deeply invaded the skin.

      The melanoma online risk calculator is designed by scientists at the National Cancer Institute, the University of California, and the University of Pennsylvania, to estimate an individual’s absolute risk of developing invasive melanoma cancer.

      Inform yourself and identify are you at high risk for this disease – click here