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Melanoma survivor: "Being tan is not worth my life"

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kimberly bowness513.jpgBy Lisa Garvin

Kimberly Bowness started using tanning beds because she wanted to get rid of tan lines before junior prom. 

 "Looking back, it all seems so silly now," she says. 

Bowness, 28, a women's health nurse practitioner in Dallas, used tanning beds three times a week for more than a month to erase the tan lines she got from playing tennis. Years later, Kimberly learned the steep price of her quest for the perfect tan: a malignant melanoma diagnosis

"It's crazy how little I used tanning beds, but how much of an effect it had on my body," she says.

Melanoma: a steep price to pay for tanning
Like everyone in her family, Kimberly has a lot of moles in all shapes and sizes. Starting in 2009, she went to a dermatologist every year to get them checked and had several removed. But she never thought it was anything serious. 

Then, in January 2013, a mole on her lower back started to itch and became darker in color. Just as she'd done many times before, she had it removed.

Kimberly was in nursing school at the time and had just met a cute boy -- now her boyfriend -- when she received the sobering diagnosis: malignant spitzoid melanoma. 

"Hearing the word 'malignant' caused a big mind shift for me. This was a huge bump in the road," she says. "I got upset and mad at myself because I knew the time I spent in tanning beds was to blame." 

Coming to MD Anderson for melanoma treatment

In March 2013, Kimberly underwent surgery in Dallas. A wide local excision removed the cancerous mole and surrounding healthy tissue. After the surgery, doctors told Kimberly the cancer had spread to her axillary area. She decided to come to MD Anderson for a second opinion for her next steps in melanoma treatment.

Two months later, Kimbery was in surgery again, this time at MD Anderson. Jeffrey Gershenwald, M.D., removed 35 lymph nodes from Kimberly's left armpit. Only one of them was affected, but Dr. Gershenwald wanted to be cautious.  Her melanoma was diagnosed as stage IIIC. 

Kimberly saw her diagnosis as just another situation to get through. "I had a couple of bad days, but it was mostly positive because I had a great support group," she says.  
Her parents, boyfriend, aunt and best friend all came with her to Houston for surgery.

Life after melanoma surgery
Today, Kimberly is cancer-free, but she returns to MD Anderson every six months for her check-ups. Cancer has changed Kimberly's habits. She always wears sunscreen with at least SPF 30  and reapplies it religiously when she is outside. She also always wears sun-protective clothing.

In addition, Kimberly stopped getting shellac or gel manicures after Dr. Gershenwald told her that the UV lamps she dried her hands under were linked to an increase in melanoma in women's nail beds. She still gets her nails done, but without shellac.

"That was a huge wake-up call for me," she says. "I really preach that to others because a lot of people already know about sunscreen, but not about the UV light in nail salons."  

Kimberly was thrilled when Texas enacted a law requiring that tanning bed salon customers be at least 18 years old.

"When we were in high school, our parents allowed us to go," Kimberly says. "I hope this law opens their eyes to the dangerous effects of tanning beds."

These days, Kimberly is much paler than she used to be, but she's OK with that.

"Sunscreen, cover and shade are all my friends now," she says.  "Being tan is so pretty, but it's not worth my life."

Melanoma is one of the cancers MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our Melanoma Moon Shot.

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