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'Tanning beds are terrible': Mom's melanoma ordeal begins decades after indoor tanning

Using tanning beds was "the cool thing to do" when Sharman Dudley was a teenager. The skin cancer showed up in her 40s.
/ Source: TODAY

Thirty years after she started using tanning beds as a teenager, Sharman Dudley still has a regular reminder of the consequences.

She needs a thorough skin cancer check every three months after four of the many atypical moles that cover her body turned out to be melanoma.

There’s no doubt in her mind indoor tanning is to blame.

After being diagnosed with skin cancer, Sharman Dudley now lives by three principles: hats, sunscreen and protective clothing.Courtesy Sharman Dudley

“Of course I regret it… tanning beds are terrible,” Dudley, 45, who lives in Washington, D.C., told TODAY. But she worries the current generation isn’t getting the message — despite many warnings that exposure to ultraviolet rays is particularly dangerous for young people.

“I see tanning becoming the in, cool thing now. With the emphasis on social media and what they see out there, you see a lot of teenagers and 20-year-olds spending a lot of time getting tan — whether it’s in the sun, not being preventative about sunscreen, or if they’re on tanning beds.”

Using indoor tanning beds before age 35 can increase a person’s risk of melanoma by 59% and the risk increases with each use, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. UV light from the sun and tanning beds can both cause melanoma and increase the risk of a benign mole progressing to melanoma, it noted.

Dudley, who works for a large software company, wants her story to be a cautionary tale as the country marks Skin Cancer Awareness Month in May.

Growing up in Colorado as an “extremely fair-skinned” kid, she was always searching for ways to look different. She turned to tanning beds in high school and throughout college — a period of about seven years ending in the early 1990s — when there wasn’t a lot of awareness about how unhealthy they were, she said.

“Tanning seemed to be the cool thing to do,” Dudley recalled, adding she had few worries about the UV radiation. “I was more concerned about how I looked based on how I felt about myself, being young and wanting to fit in.”

As an adult, she began getting regular skin checks and had moles removed as a precaution. But the results were always benign and the checkups became less frequent as Dudley had children and was busy working on her career.

Then in 2017, something in the back of her mind kept telling her, “Go to the dermatologist,” she recalled. A biopsy of two moles on her upper right thigh revealed they were both melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer.

“Nothing on my body looked suspicious to me just because I have so many moles,” Dudley said. “I was shocked… it wasn’t anything that I would have been able to have spotted with my own eyes — it was 100% my doctors.”

Both cancers were removed successfully. But two more were discovered in the next two years — the most recent one in December 2019 — including a spot behind her right knee and one on her left lower shin. They were also surgically excised.

Dudley has been diagnosed with melanoma four times. All of the cancer has been on her legs.Courtesy Sharman Dudley

Dudley has also had three severely atypical moles removed from her right leg and torso. In all, she estimates she’s had more than 15 moles — benign and otherwise — taken off so far.

Dudley hasn’t used a tanning bed in 20 years and now lives by three principles: hats, sunscreen and protective clothing. She’s healthy, she said, and sees her dermatologist every three months for a skin check.

Her 17-year-old twins had their first full-body checkups last year.

“Thankfully, they’ve never been tempted to tan,” Dudley said. “They probably don’t enjoy the lectures I give them about sunscreen and making sure they’re wearing protective clothing. But the message is ingrained, they hear it. I believe it has sunk in with them.”