Addicted to the Sun
As a child, Karen Irons, 47, spent her summers at a beach house in Massachusetts, where the primary pastime was lying out in the sun. Irons never wore sunscreen, so her fair Irish skin inevitably burned once or twice, but the annual agony seemed like a small price to pay to achieve her ultimate goal: a perfectly bronzed body. "I loved being tan," she says. "And in those days I really didn't know any better."
Yet even after Irons learned about the tanning/skin-cancer connection while working as a paramedic in her early 20s, that didn't stop her from soaking up the sun every chance she got. In fact, when she was 40 she and her husband moved to Bristol, Rhode Island, specifically so they could live on the beach and spend more time catching rays. "I was aware of the risk, but I was naive," she says. "I didn't have any moles, so I thought it wouldn't happen to me."
But in January 2006 it did happen. Irons went to her doctor with an enlarged lymph node in her right armpit. She figured it was probably nothing serious, but her doctor, concerned about breast cancer, ordered a mammogram and an ultrasound. Both were negative, so she sent Irons to a surgeon to have the node removed and biopsied. The shocking results? She had stage-3 melanoma.
"I was completely blindsided," she recalls. "I thought, 'What is this woman talking about?' Once she started discussing oncologists and surgery and how the cancer already might have spread to other organs, reality began to sink in. I just sat there and sobbed."
It turned out that the melanoma originated from a mole on her upper arm, which Irons had never noticed before because it was atypical; in fact, six doctors had overlooked the pale, pimple-like growth in the search for the source. After two surgeries -- one to remove the mole and the surrounding tissue, the other to take out the remaining 32 lymph nodes under her arm -- and a grueling year of interferon treatments, she was pronounced cancer-free, with the caveat that the overall five-year survival rate for her type of melanoma is just 50 to 70 percent.
Despite her fear of a recurrence, Irons confesses she misses the feeling of the sun's rays on her skin. "I crave it," she says. "It sounds kind of crazy, but the sun was like a drug and I was addicted to it."
Irons may be closer to the truth than she thinks. Recent studies on the psychology of tanning suggest that sun worshippers and tanning-booth devotees really could be hooked on the effects of those UV rays. "Some people may be tanning for a real physiological reason, perhaps even a need," says Steven Feldman, MD, a professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University. This new science of sun worship may finally provide insight into one of the most troubling public health questions in recent memory: Why do so many smart, informed women continue to tan, especially when they know very well that exposure to sunlight can cause skin cancer as well as premature aging?