Just about any parents will tell you that protecting their children is one of their greatest responsibilities.While we can’t safeguard our children from everything, a bill moving through the Texas Legislature can go a long way to reduce teens’ risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and other skin cancers that require specialized treatment and close monitoring throughout life. Senate Bill 329, by Sen. Joan Huffman and Rep. John Zerwas, an M.D., would prohibit access to tanning beds and facilities by children under 18. Research tells us that artificial ultraviolet light (UVR), which is emitted by tanning beds, is a major risk for causing skin cancer. We also know that teen behaviors — whether spending time in tanning beds or in the sun unprotected — can influence the risk of skin cancer later in life. We must reshape these practices.Should this legislation become law, we can anticipate fewer Texans diagnosed with melanoma over time, with the greatest impact on young adults. For the people who will no longer receive such a diagnosis and never have to go through treatment, it’s a powerful argument and extraordinary opportunity to prevent such a tough cancer.We hope this will be the last prom season when tanning beds will be an option for teens who want what they perceive as a “must look” for their year-end dances. In the meantime, we strongly encourage parents to talk to their teens about the dangers of tanning beds and the importance of sun safety overall.Here are some research findings about tanning beds that parents should know and discuss with the teens and young adults in their families:Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in 15- to 29-year-olds in the United States.UV radiation and UV-emitting tanning devices are classified as carcinogens (capable of causing cancer) and are on the same World Health Organization list of carcinogens as tobacco smoke and plutonium.Starting indoor tanning before age 18 increases melanoma risk by 85 percent.The use of a tanning bed during adolescence and early adulthood increased the early onset of melanoma (before age 40) by 41 percent.The average 17-year-old female in the United States now tans about 25 times a year, and the risk of melanoma goes up with increased use.The incidence of melanoma is increasing approximately 3 percent per year in the United States. In Texas, almost 4,000 individuals are likely to be diagnosed with invasive melanoma in 2013.Currently, Texas is ranked fourth in the nation for the most individuals newly diagnosed with melanoma. It is heartbreaking to see the growing number of people of all ages who are diagnosed with melanoma and face rigorous treatment. These patients are our fellow Texans with families, friends and futures.While our research in the detection and treatment of melanoma and other skin cancers continues to advance, the best strategy is to prevent the disease altogether or at least reduce risk. We are making strong gains in understanding how to leverage the body’s immune system; capitalize on our rapidly evolving understanding of the molecular underpinnings of the biology of melanoma; and pursue less-toxic therapies to fight the disease.But for now, treatment, especially for advanced melanoma, can be quite demanding. The overall financial burden for diagnosing and treating melanoma and other skin cancers in the United States is estimated at $5 billion.As physicians on the front lines of patient care and cancer prevention and as public health advocates, we want to save lives, reduce healthcare expenditures, spare suffering and help our teens and young adults thrive. This bill can help attain these goals.
Jeffrey E. Gershenwald is professor of surgical oncology and cancer biology and medical director of the Melanoma and Skin Center at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Michael G. Wilkerson is associate professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and president of the Texas Dermatological Society.