When 'good' tans go bad: confessions of a tanaholic

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By Kim Benz

Kimpresurg.jpgOnce upon a time, there was a girl who grew up on the beaches of Gulf Shores, Ala. As a teenager she would bask in the warm summer sun, her skin glistening with baby oil.

Fast forward a few years. At age 17, the girl discovered tanning beds and was instantly addicted.

The girl I'm talking about is me. 

My name is Kim Benz. I'm a sun addict. Yes, this is a confession and if there was a tanaholics anonymous, I would most certainly be attending. 

I love being outdoors and until about a year ago, I loved nothing more than lounging in the sun with minimal sunscreen. I did give up the tanning beds, but only two years ago at age 36. 

I was diagnosed with skin cancer, a basal cell carcinoma, about 15 years ago after I had a suspicious-looking mole that often would bleed.

I soon found out that it needed to be removed. I then had my first experience with Mohs surgery. Mohs is a micrographic surgery that uses precise measurements of tumor margins to remove many types of skin cancer. The surgery left an angry, raised, red scar in the middle of my back and I, being somewhat vain, swore I would never do it again. 

Then, four years ago I noticed a flaky, irritated spot above my lip, near my nose. After it tested positive for basal cell carcinoma, I spent months researching my options.

I found all kinds of treatment methods, but eventually decided on an experimental treatment at MD Anderson called photodynamic therapy

I left the hospital elated, after being told I was cancer-free and the lesion was gone. That is, until about a year ago.

kimsurg.jpgI noticed that the spot on my lip was coming back. I tried to pretend it was just a scar from the previous treatments but once it started blistering, bleeding and scabbing over, there was no denying it was back. I was scared. 

I made and canceled many appointments with my dermatologist. But it wasn't until he called me personally to tell me how worried he was, that I realized I had to get this taken care of, and fast.

I actually had three spots -- on my lip, my nose and my forehead. My doctor felt the lip was going to be the worst, and since it bothered me, we began there. 

The procedure was extremely awkward. Being awake, I was fully aware of everything going on. Though they covered my eyes to block the light, I was still able to sense what was going on. 

There was a lot of tugging and pulling and I could hear the cutting -- that was probably the hardest thing to deal with.

Once the doctor was done cutting, he used a cauterizing machine, so I had to deal with the smell of burning flesh and the noise of the sizzle as it touched my raw, exposed skin.
My wound was packed with gauze and the tissue sample was taken to the lab to check the margins for cancer cells. If the edges were clear, then that meant he got it all. If it came back with any cancerous cells, he would have to cut more. 

kimstitches.jpgAfter 45 minutes of waiting, he excitedly announced that was it. It was everything I had prayed for. No extra cutting, no skin grafts, it was finally out.

Stitches were next. 

The wound had to be closed so as to not cause any puckering or dimpling of my skin. It had to be done so that my lip was not drastically pulled up or sideways. The best option was to lengthen the wound horizontally and stitch it that way. 

Stitching seemed to me to be the least of my concerns, but I was wrong. The photo (right) is the final result before I was bandaged up with pressure bandages.

After getting home and the local anesthesia wore off, the pain was pretty intense. I didn't expect it to hurt that much, since I had two c-sections and wasn't in that much pain. 

I have about 30 stitches, 15 internal and about 15 external. They go into my top lip and eating has proven to be a challenge. 

The swelling was considerably worse in my lip, so now I have dry, chapped lips to deal with as well. I joked that I look like a collagen implant gone wrong.

I wish there was a way I could go back in time. I wish I could stop and convince that pretty teenage girl that the perfect tan wasn't more important than her health. I would warn her and her friends of the dangers involved with tanning beds and unprotected UV rays. 

Most importantly, I would stop her from ever having to go through the horror of being diagnosed with skin cancer and the pain and scarring that comes with it.

I still have a long way to go. My doctor and I are going to become very good friends through all of this.  

Watch Kim on ABC News (video)
Visit Kim's blog
Skin Cancer: Melanoma, Basal and Squamous Cell Carcinoma (podcast)
Mohs surgery


Kim very touching story! I can relate to ur feelings. My husband & i was patients of MD Anderson. And the doctors there are the most caring doctors i have ever met. Literlly making sure we could contact her at anytime. Im sorry about ur situation yu will be okay and most def you are @ the right hospital i will put yu in my prayers God bless.

Thank Goodness for great doctors. At the beginning of 2013 I went through the same thing and like you, I loved the sun. I was a lifeguard for 6 years and used the tanning bed. My results were not cancerous but if not removed could have turned into cancer. I had a spot on my chest and two spots on my back removed and I have to agree the cauterizing was the worst smell. I was one of the youngest patients my doctor had seen with these issues. I had just turned 21. I know the pain is terrible but I hope your healing is going well.

I can so relate to your story. I myself am a EX tanner and now a Melanoma survivor. My tanning left me with a 7 inch scar down my face 138 staples. I like you wish I could go back in time but this time I want to take the knowledge I now have and use it to educate every teen I come in contact with to first and foremost "Love the Skin your In" and to protect themselves against the sun and to Never Ever Ever start tanning!! I can say this melanoma has taught me alot and gave me the greatest gift of all..How to truely love myself and the skin that im in. ;-)

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