A Tan Is Not a Sign of Health: Sharon McKenna, Melanoma Survivor, Shares Her Story

Posted on by DCPC

A photo of Sharon McKenna enjoying a sunny daySharon McKenna works as a sun safety manager with the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Let’s put it out there—I’m a fair-skinned redhead who grew up believing a tan was a sign of health. I spent summers as a lifeguard and vacations at the beach, and I never wore sunscreen. I started each summer creating that golden-brown tan of my girlhood with a painful sunburn, like a “base coat” of paint. Hey, we all did. It was a sign that summer was here, right?

I use different “base coats” now—like sunscreen and sun-protective clothing. I avoid the sun at peak midday hours, and I spend a lot of time advocating for sun safety. Why? Because I had melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. I learned the hard way: a tan is not a sign of health.

My battle with melanoma began in 2002, after I noticed a small, irregular mole on my lower back. I endured six months of medical tests trying to figure out why I was constantly sick and had low energy, and the mole was the last thing to test. I was anxious to see if this mole had anything to do with my constant sickness and fatigue. It did. Four days after my biopsy, my mother appeared at my door and sat me down to deliver the news: I had stage II melanoma.

To date, I’ve undergone 28 biopsies and had three melanomas surgically removed. I’ve been melanoma-free since 2003, but have had other non-melanoma skin cancers removed since then.

As an adult, my vacations centered around sunbathing. My Jamaican mother and family had the dark skin I wanted to emulate. And yet, they protected their skin and insisted I do the same. Their message went unheeded. In fact, I still had a visible tan line two months after my first melanoma surgery. I was embarrassed and viewed my tan as a badge of shame. I apologized to the melanoma surgical team during anesthesia. But I learned that knowledge is power. Skin cancer is the most preventable of all cancers. Vacations now center around better things than sunbathing. Discovering melanoma changed my life. I became an advocate for sun safety and found a new passion and a new job.

I had been a newspaper reporter, editor, and publicist. A clinical trial nurse read my background and suggested calling the state health department to volunteer. I took her advice and a job offer to create a sun safety program. I focused on K–8 schools because they embraced sun safety. I literally went door-to-door asking schools to give me 10 minutes of staff meeting time. That was 12 years ago.

A photo of Sharon McKenna and Deputy Surgeon General Boris Lushniak.
Sharon McKenna and Deputy Surgeon General Boris Lushniak at CDC’s Public Health Grand Rounds: Prevention and Control of Skin Cancer, April 21, 2015.

Today, our program is a state education mandate. I meet with schools and organizations throughout Arizona, giving more than 300 presentations a year, with bags of plastic beads that turn colors when exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun or the type of lamps found in tanning booths. The beads help kids from kindergarten to high school see right away that ultraviolet rays may be invisible and impossible to feel, but they exist and can damage your skin regardless of skin color. In fact, I tell students about the famous Jamaican reggae singer, Bob Marley, who died of melanoma.

Knowledge is power, and I want to equip children with tools to protect them against sun damage. I also want to help them form habits that will last a lifetime.

Skin damage is cumulative. It’s not like you start fresh every summer. Your sunburns and tans will fade, but your cells have “memory.” We don’t know what amount of UV exposure sets the wheels in motion. It’s different for each person, but we do know ways to reduce your risk of skin cancer.

Since my diagnosis, when my now-teenage son was 5 years old, I’ve kept a colorful basket of sunscreens on the kitchen counter. Young or old, everyone knows the rule: sunscreen is a must at our house. I wash my son’s clothes in a laundry treatment with ultraviolet protectant. I’ve made using sunscreen a regular habit like brushing your teeth. Make sun safety “cool.” Who wants leathery skin? And have you noticed how cool you look wearing shades?

I’ve been blessed to turn lemons into lemonade. I get paid to obsess about my affliction and to meet with the brightest minds in the field of skin cancer prevention. I’ve dedicated the last 12 years to making a difference and have learned it all comes down to these simple messages—

Skin cancer is preventable.

Don’t burn.

Don’t tan.

Protect your skin.

Simply keep your skin the color it came in, and you, too, can make a world of difference.

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8 comments on “A Tan Is Not a Sign of Health: Sharon McKenna, Melanoma Survivor, Shares Her Story”

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    Everyone thinks that a melanoma has to be a mole that turns brown or black, etc. However I had a pink bump on my right arm that turned out to be a ameloctic malignant melanoma which is very rare. Even my dermatologist was not sure that it should be sent for a pathology report. This rare cancer is only 2% of malignant melanomas and it can present as red/pink or white areas or bumps. Thank goodness I was suspicious as I am a fair red haired woman that had a couple of serious sunburns as a child before there was sunscreen. Please everyone, stay out of the sun, wear your sunscreen, and check out all bumps no matter what color they are!

    As soon as I saw the melanoma story my first question I knew would be answered if a photo of the author was produced, A Red head ! Although melanoma isn’t just the realm of redheads it does seem to be highly represented in that group. My wife is a Red head and has also been successfully treated for melanoma redheads.

    I thought this was great to read. Living in Southern California, everyone get tanned, even if it’s not on purpose. I also tan every summer and rarely use sunblock. Since negative effects are not immediate, I never thought twice about it and I always thought I would be just fine. After reading this, I know that I have to be much more careful about what I do. It’s really great that there are interventions in place for children at the elementary school level, because this type of cancer is so easily preventable, and it’s important to get children thinking about this early, before it’s too late. I have never heard about beads that change color in the presence of UV rays before, and I think it’s great to really show people and children tangible evidence of how harmful UV rays are. Hopefully this program can extend further into a nationwide program, instead of just a state mandated one.

    This blog was very interesting to me because it gave a positive insight of why it is necessary to know that staying in the sun is quite harmful. I enjoyed reading Sharon McKenna’s story because by her sharing her battle with melanoma (cancer) she was able to advocate how important it is to protect our skin from the sun and how harmful ultraviolet rays are. By using sunscreen as well as sunglasses for our eyes we can help our skin be protected and be safe from skin cancer. I know I am guilty of sunbathing during the summer because it is something that society in a way influences us to do. Many believe having a nice tan during the summer is better than being pale and that is why many continue to sun bathe without knowing all the consequences behind it. I am very pleased that she is able to talk to children in schools and advocate for this cause. In order to help save many lives from this preventable cancer spreading the awareness is the main goal. By one person knowing that important information to help prevent it, they will be able to let their fellow peers, family members, and friends know what is happening and what needs to be done to help resolve this. Melanoma cancer is one of the deadliest cancers and it is scary to think by tanning and trying to “look nice” it can actually take your life away. This is a blog that many parents should see to help encourage their children to use sunscreen every day. I have learned quite a lot reading this blog and I will share this information to others to help be part of that change. Tanning is not a sign of health like Sharon states.

    I found this blog entry very interesting and insightful because I can relate to many of the things Sharon spoke about. Much like Sharon said, I grew up thinking that being tan was a sign of health. In today’s society, it is portrayed that having tanned skin makes you more attractive. Every summer I work to achieve that golden tan that I believe makes me appear more attractive. Just like Sharon said, I would usually start my summer base coat with a sunburn that would end up peeling. I rarely put sunblock on, in fact I usually apply tanning oil with little or no spf and I have often used tanning beds in the past. In this blog, I really liked the point that Sharon made about how skin damage is cumulative. The way I have always thought of my skin and tanning is that I have to start over every summer, but I did not realize that skin cells have memory. I think that this blog is very important for younger people such as myself to read because it informs about the dangers of skin cancer and urges taking preventative measures to avoid getting skin cancer. I think that younger people need to be made aware of how dangerous melanoma is, because often times young people such as myself feel that cancer could never affect us.

    This blog was very interesting in the sense that ever since I could remember, my mom would always badgering me to wear sunscreen overtime I would go out in the summer, especially on my face. I recently asked my mom why she always seemed to me more insistent about the whole protection and apparently her mom discovered she had melanoma, but luckily they caught it in time for treatment. Since my mom saw first hand the causes and effects of skin cancer, I’m not surprise that she’s a big advocate of sun protection when it comes to her family and friends. Even though my mom has tried to make it a habit for me to continue to protect from the sun, I used to forget (sometimes on purpose) to protect myself from the sun being on my daily run, while I’m at the beach, or any outdoor event in general. Now that I know that my grandma had skin cancer, I have forced myself to make it a habit to wear sunscreen when needed as well as to wear protective clothing when I can to be extra protected. I really like how the author went school to school to spread the word on the cause and to make a difference. I think that schools should take action when it comes to kids playing out in the sun during recess. They should either provide shades for the playground areas, require kids to bring sunblock or sun protective clothing, or somehow get reduced price or free items for students that protect from the sun. I believe that skin cancer doesn’t really get much promotion even though it is one of the most preventible types of cancer. There should be signs and PSAs on the effects of the sun and how one can protect themselves from the sun and what they should do in case they feel like they have skin cancer.

    “A tan is not a sign of health.” These words have never rung truer to me. My father was recently diagnosed with a type of skin cancer. While it wasn’t melanoma, it was still a cancer that if untreated and undiagnosed, could possibly lead to death. Since his job requires him to be outside for a majority of the day, every day I at first thought the cancer he had was melanoma. I immediately went to the nearest grocery store and purchased a bottle of sunscreen. While I found out later it wasn’t melanoma, it really put into perspective the effect prolonged sun exposure can have on skin. I believe it’s important for everyone to be knowledgeable about skin cancer and the sun’s effects. It is especially important for children to grow up with this knowledge and to practice protecting themselves at a younger age. I applaud your efforts to arm children with the knowledge to fight back against societal pressures that urge them to knowingly injure their skin.

    I, too, have had a bout of malignant melanoma. The spot grew from a pinpoint to about half an inch round, within the time of several years. When I would mention the spot to doctors and dermatologists, I was given short shrift on it, that it was nothing but a spot. Finally, I got mad and insisted on a biopsy, with the dermatologist very blustery about me contradicting his professional diagnosis. Five days later, it was a different story when he had to call me on a Friday with the results. On the following Monday, I saw an Oncologist and that Friday, I had a deep excision of my inner left calf. I did not have any treatment afterwards as the surgeon said he had gotten the whole cancer and there were no feelers past the chunk of skin he removed . I also found out later that there is a ten-year period before I would be considered cancer free. I am a fair-skinned (former) redhead, so I see the dermatologist twice a year because of all the sunburns I suffered growing up, plus using baby oil with iodine as an adult to try to achieve a tan. One of the worst burns I ever received was from propping my arm on a car window. That was at a time when cars did not usually have air conditioning, so I drove with the window down. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, but the wind blew up the gap and, thus, at the end of the ride my arm and my face were badly burned. I’m glad safety is now being taught to the young people.

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