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Since 1995, the American Academy of Dermatology has designated the first Monday in May as Melanoma Monday, to raise awareness of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanoma rates in this country doubled from 1982 to 2011, and they continue to increase as these words are written.

Melanoma can appear anywhere on the body, but it is more common on the head and neck, torso and upper back, and lower legs. Because melanoma may spread to lymph nodes and internal organs, early detection is critical. Guest column New, rapidly growing moles, or moles that change, itch or bleed can be early signs of melanoma. These moles should be checked by a board-certified dermatologist. Melanoma may appear without warning, but also it can develop from or near an existing mole.

Melanoma is now the second-most common cancer in females aged 15-29. But young and old alike are affected; all Caucasians, and men older than 50, also have an increased risk of developing melanoma compared to the general population.

Ultraviolet light (UVL) from both the sun and from tanning beds can cause melanoma. UVL does not need to burn the skin to damage the skin. The rays of UVL coming from a tanning bed do not match rays from the sun; in fact, one brief session in a tanning device may deliver the equivalent of two to five times the UVL supplied by the mid-day summer sun. Using indoor tanning beds before age 35 can increase your risk of melanoma by 59%; the risk increases with each use.

Forty four states have already passed some form of regulation restricting the use of tanning beds by children and teens. Unfortunately, the 2019 Montana legislature failed to enact Senate Bill 21 that would have done the same in our state. Senate Bill 21 was designed to protect children and teens from being subjected to the cancer-causing effects of a tanning bed before age 18.

The absence of a legal restriction on tanning bed use by youth in our state does not change the fact that it is a very unsafe practice. The World Health Organization categorizes tanning devices into its highest cancer risk category — the same as tobacco. In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started requiring manufacturers of tanning beds to place a warning on tanning devices stating that they are not recommended for people under 18 years old. Avoiding the use of tanning beds is a way to prevent and reduce the future incidence of this deadly cancer in our youth.

Let’s make Melanoma Monday a thing of the past for the next generation of Montanans.

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Charlotte L. Kutsch, MD, is president of the Montana Academy of Dermatology and practicing dermatologist on the campus of the Community Medical Center in Missoula. 

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