When “good” tans go bad

Once upon a time there was a girl who grew up on the beaches of Gulf Shores.  As a teenager she would bask in the warm summer sun, her skin glistening with baby oil.  No matter how hard she tried, she never quite achieved that tropical bronze glow she so desperately wanted, but instead tended to turn a shade of brownish red, sometimes even swelling from the burn.  Nonetheless, she continued on her journey, convinced that she would eventually tan once her skin was used to burning….that age old belief that one could burn then turn tan.  Many times should would peel, large layers of dead skin would come off in sheets.  Never was it alarming, she would skip a few days of “laying out” and then be right back in the sun.

Fast forward a few years, at the age of 17 she discovered tanning beds…and it was an instant addiction.  The girl I am talking about of course is myself.  My name is Kim Benz, I am a sun addict.  Yes, this is a confessional and if there was a tanaholics anonymous I most certainly would be attending.  I love being outdoors and up until about a year ago I loved nothing more than lounging in the sun with minimal sunscreen.  I did give up the tanning beds, but only 2 years ago or so.  I am now 38.  I was first diagnosed with skin cancer, a basal cell carcinoma around 15 years ago.  I had a suspicious looking mole that often would bleed, I chalked it up to my bra strap irritating it.  It turned out that it needed to be removed.  That was my first experience with MOHS surgery.  The surgery left an angry, raised, red scar in the middle of my back.  Being somewhat vain, I swore I would never do that again!  4 years ago, I noticed a flaky, irritated spot above my lip, near my nose.  I did some research and chose a surgeon at Baylor College of Medicine.  She was wonderful and very considerate to my concerns.  After it tested positive for Basal Cell, I became very worried about my options for treatment.  She suggested we try a topical ointment called Aldara that works somewhat like a chemotherapy cream and is supposed to target superficial cancer cells.  Anxious to start the treatment, I quickly spent over $200 on the prescription and rushed home to begin.  After approximately 4 applications, the site began growing and scabbing over.  In addition, I became extremely ill.  My husband, Tyler left to go to China for 3 weeks for a mission trip and I was home with our 2 small children.  I remember having to call my mother to come and get me, and she insisted I stop the medication.  Unknown to me, Aldara comes with horrible side effects and is not safe for everyone to use.  Upon researching, I found that there are even class action lawsuits against it.  I returned to my doctor and she agreed that I should never use it again.  My only other option was MOHS.

Determined to find another option, I spent months researching.  I found all kinds of different information, from hollistic treatments, to the use of black salve.  I eventually stumbled on an experimental treatment at MD Anderson called Photodynamic Therapy.  “Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a treatment that uses a drug, called a photosensitizer or photosensitizing agent, and a particular type of light. When photosensitizers are exposed to a specific wavelength of light, they produce a form of oxygen that kills nearby cells.”  I left the hospital elated after being told that I was cancer free and the lesion was gone!  Over the last few years, I have noticed more spots popping up, several on my shoulders, back, legs, nose and also this one on my chest.

A quick little run down on skin cancer.  There are 3 main types.  Basal, Squamous and Melanoma.  Basal Cell is what you sometimes hear as the “good” kind.  After what I have been through, I would hardly call it good though!  Basal Cell does not metatastisize but can grow, causing physical deformities.  Squamous cells  rarely cause further problems when identified and treated early. Untreated, squamous cell carcinoma can grow large or spread to other parts of your body, causing serious complications.  Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer,” these cancerous growths develop when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells (most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds) triggers mutations (genetic defects) that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors.  These tumors originate in the pigment-producing melanocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis. Melanomas often resemble moles; some develop from moles. The majority of melanomas are black or brown, but they can also be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white. Melanoma is caused mainly by intense, occasional UV exposure (frequently leading to sunburn), especially in those who are genetically predisposed to the disease. Melanoma kills an estimated 8,790 people in the US annually.”  People who have used tanning beds before the age 30 are at a 75% more risk of developing Melanoma, this risk increases even more for those of us who are also predisposed to Basal and Squamous cell cancers.

About a year ago, I started noticing that the spot on my lip was coming back.  I tried to pretend it was just a scar from the previous treatments, but once it started blistering and bleeding and scabbing over…there was no denying that it was back and I was scared.  The fact that it had never been fully cured meant that it could have just been growing under the surface for all of this time.  I made and canceled many appointments with my new dermatologist who happens to also be a leading MOHS surgeon with a background in plastic surgery.  It wasn’t until he personally called and told me how worried HE was that I finally realized that I had to get this taken care of, and soon.  I made the appointment for April 30th and waited nervously.  On Sunday I began to get sick, my stomach was a wreck.  Monday came and it was time.

Upon getting to the office we went over the procedure.  I actually had 3 spots on my face.  My lip, my nose and one on my forehead.  He felt that the lip was going to be the worst and since that is the one that bothered me the most, we began there.  He marked the area…

Then gave me 2 valium to relax me, my blood pressure was quite high 161/100!  The nurse came in and began numbing the area.  The pain from the shots was not pleasant, but over quickly.  I could feel my face swelling and my lip felt 5 times its’ normal size…

The actual procedure was extremely awkward.  Being awake, I was fully aware of everything going on.  They covered my eyes to block the light, however I was still able to sense what was happening.  There was a lot of tugging and pulling and I could actually hear the cutting, that was probably the hardest thing to deal with.  Once he was done cutting, he used a cauterizing machine, so then I had to deal with the smell of burning flesh and the noise of the sizzle as it touched my raw, exposed skin.  My wound was packed with gauze and the tissue sample was taken to the lab to check the margins for cancer cells.  If the edges were clear, then that means he got it all.  If it came back with any cells, then he would have to cut more…something we were all fully prepared for.  After 45 minutes of waiting, he excitedly announced that was it!  Everything I had prayed for God had granted!  No extra cutting, no skin grafts…it was finally out!  The spot itself was about the size of a dime….

as you can see in the above picture, the spot on my nose is so close to the spot above my lip that postponing that surgery until I heal from this one was really the only option.  It’s still hard to look at, as strange as it sounds, I really am blessed that this wasn’t a worse defect.

Stitches were next.  The wound had to be closed so as to not cause any puckering or dimpling of my skin.  Also, it had to be done so that my lip was not drastically pulled up or sideways.  The best option was to lengthen the wound horizontally and stitch it that way.  Stitching seemed to me to be the least of my concerns, but I was wrong.  In order to get  a good clean close, a process called undermining.  “To undermine skin edges, you cut beneath the skin along the edge of a wound to free the skin from its deep tissue attachments. The purpose
is to increase skin mobility, which is important for a tension-free wound closure.”  This is the final result before I was bandaged up with pressure bandages.

After getting home and the local anesthesia wore off, the pain was pretty intense.  I didn’t expect it to hurt that much, I’ve been through 2 c-sections and wasn’t in this much pain!  Tyler said it’s the trauma that the tissues and skin endured during the reconstruction.  I have to wear the pressure bandage for 2 days then I can change it.  In all I have about 30 stitches.  15 internal and about 15 external.  The stitches do go into my top lip and eating has proven to be a challenge.  The swelling this morning was considerably worse in my lip than it was yesterday, so now I have dry, chapped lips to deal with as well.  I joked that I look like a collagen implant gone wrong!  The stitches will come out next Monday and then we will discuss what gets done next.  My doctor and I are going to become very good friends through all of this.

Leilani Tan couldn’t be born at a better time.  I am becoming more and more passionate about the crusade to make tanning beds illegal.  In California they already are for minors under the age of 18.  I hope that it will only be a matter of time before that law is passed nationwide!  In the meantime, airbrush tanning is completely safe.  If you have to have that golden glow, I know that I still crave it…then call me!  I will do your first airbrush tan for $20.  If you buy a package of 4 you can get it for $75!  Don’t go through what I have been through, if you use a tanning bed, stop.  If you tan outside, make sure you have at the very least a 15 sunscreen on and remember to reapply every hour.  Be sun smart and be safe!

I will be updating again in a few days to show you how I’m healing!


12 thoughts on “When “good” tans go bad

  1. Wow, Leilan. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with skin cancer and MOHS sugery. You are saving lives, one reader at a time.

    Your post is so moving and emotional.

    If your interested, MD Anderson would love to feature this post on our Cancerwise blog- http://www.cancerwise.org. May is skin cancer awareness and I can’t think of a better post to get the tanning bed message across.

    Please contact me at lrichardson1@mdanderson.org if youd interested in collaborating.

    Hope to hear from you soon.

    Best wishes,

    Lucy Richardson

  2. I hate to see anyone going through what you are but THANK YOU for posting this – i stopped using tanning beds a long time ago and refuse to let my daughter go anymore i lost a very dear friend at the age of 41 from this earlier this year and wish you a speedy recovery – prayers coming your way!

  3. Love your post. I am about to graduate from college and have many friends who go to tanning beds. I shared your post on my blog, which is about growing up and getting out on your own. I thought this post would be a great message to young people who are gaining ground on their future and making choices they will continue to be responsible for. Thank you for being so brave and sharing your story, because it really puts the effects of UV rays into perspective. Too many young people don’t consider their future when they are making decisions in the present. I will be sending positive thoughts your way and good luck to you!

    • Thanks for sharing Michelle! I can only hope that my story and the images I post will “scare” people into thinking twice about their tanning choices! Good luck to you in your future!

  4. Very strong story here! That’s the WHOLE reason why I have invented my company. I used to work for a Dr. who was cutting skin cancer out left and right! Your story is amazing and I congratulate you in what you stand for. I am behind you ALL the way with getting tanning beds out for good! Funny enough in my buisness when I see a new airbrush tanning company start instead of getting nervous over competition I want to go over and see YES, you get it! The more the better!!!

  5. Thanks for posting this. I never used a tanning bad, but have BCC at 35 anyway. I just met with my MOHS surgeon today and am scheduled for surgery near my eye in 6 weeks. The wait can’t be as bad as the surgery. Did you find anything particularly helpful for the pain? I know they say only Tylenol. Wishing you speedy healing and healthy skin!

    • Hi! The wait is horrible, I know that I personally just wanted to be done with it!! I am about to post my follow up visit and stitch removal..I am really pleased! Anyhow, the first 2 days I took Vicodin, my lip was horribly swollen and that side of my face was quite sore. The Tylenol with codiene didn’t work so well for me! Your Dr. should be able to prescribe something a little stronger. After the second day though the pain was minimal, nothing a little Advil couldn’t help! Good luck to you, it really isn’t as bad as you think and remember, that even though you never tanned in the tanning beds, wear SPF15 on your face EVERY day…actually just slather it on everywhere! 🙂 The sun itself is pretty brutal! Let me know if you have any questions!

      • thanks so much 🙂 Yup, have worn SPF 15 moisturizer for 10 years. My doc actually said wear SPF 30 every day now. He also said they don’t prescribe pain meds, Tylenol should do it, I’ll definitely ask for something stronger. Thanks for the advice. Mine’s between my eye and my nose, so I won’t be able to see well for a bit, but I am hoping I’ll be able to drink that wine (even if it does have to be through a straw!) I’m hoping to be as lucky as you and get through with one pass! I hope that it continues to get better and better and isn’t imperceptible very soon!

  6. Thanks for sharing! I’m 28 and have a bcc on the same spot on my upper lip but it couldn’t be operated on without being disfiguring. I’m in my final week of the Aldara treatment and it’s made me feel pretty rough too. Almost over, hopefully cancer free! Growing up in Australia I fully expect to have to deal with skin cancer for the rest of my life, hopefully nothing worse than bccs. Scarey stuff! Good on you for raising awareness. All the best with the healing process x

    • Hi Erin,
      I just wanted to follow up with you. Did the Aldara end up working for you? My current doctor is wanting to try it again on me, on a few smaller spots…Hope all is well!

  7. Pingback: Deja Vu | Here Comes the Sun, and I Say It's Alright

  8. Wow I’m so sorry to hear you’re story but happy you are doing good 🙂 I have to say I never ever comment on things online but I just had a baby 2 months ago so I obviously haven’t been in a tanning bed in about a year now and tonight I was googling something completely unrelated and came across you’re story…maybe a sign because I went into the tanning salon today and they were booked up, but I made an appt for tmrw as I have been feeling a little icky and down about my body after childbirth, thinking a nice golden tan again would make me feel better. I think I might be cancelling that appointment for tmrw. Thank you for sharing you’re story and I hope you are doing very well.

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