WASHINGTON – Brittany Lietz, Miss Maryland 2006, first used tanning beds when she was 17 and getting ready for the prom; just three years later she was diagnosed with melanoma.
Lietz, now 24, joined a panel of doctors and advocates Thursday in urging the Food and Drug Administration to provide better regulation and information about skin cancer and sunscreen products.
“There should not be 16-, 17-, 18-, 19-, 20 year-olds being diagnosed with melanoma, that’s simply unacceptable,” she said, adding later, “There is no such thing as a safe tan.”
There are sunscreen products on the market offering protection from UVB rays, but not much protection from UVA rays. Also, some products erroneously claim to offer “full spectrum” protection, panelists said.
Dr. Sandra Read, a Washington cosmetic dermatologist who moderated the event, called UVA rays the “silent killer.”
About 62,480 men and women are expected to be diagnosed with skin melanoma in 2008, with 8,420 adults expected to die of the disease by year’s end, according to a petition available at the event.
Lietz discovered she had skin cancer in 2005 during her freshman year, after her mother urged her to get a mole checked. Growing up, her parents made her wear sunscreen and stressed the importance of taking care of her skin.
“Before I was diagnosed, I had no idea what skin cancer was. I thought it only happened to older people,” Lietz said after the National Press Club event.
Since the diagnosis, she has had 34 surgeries to remove abnormal and pre-cancerous cells, said Lietz. And now she feels it’s her duty to advocate for better education about skin cancer.
The FDA has more work to do, the panelists said.
There are many reliable, effective sunscreen products in Europe, Asia, South America, and Canada that are not available in the United States, said Dr. Monica Halem of New York Presbyterian Hospital.
“Why is this not available to us? This makes no sense,” Halem said.
Ciba and Tinosorb are two products that provide broad spectrum UV protection that are available overseas, but not in America, according to an announcement about the panel.
Lietz, as a skin cancer survivor, has to buy skin care products from overseas and sees her dermatologist and oncologist every three months. She also said more products should be created for African-Americans and Hispanics, since they are also at risk for skin cancer.
After the initial shock of learning that she had melanoma, Lietz said she carried out her desire to educate people about this preventable cancer by visiting schools and showing students pictures of her scars.
Most young people do not listen to their doctors and unless someone within their age group has experienced a serious event, many will not listen, Lietz said.
In order to stop people from linking self-esteem to tanned skin, the Skin Cancer Foundation launched a “Go With Your Own Glow” campaign to encourage citizens to appreciate their skin, regardless of their complexion, said Communications Director Erin Mulvey.
The lack of education about the disease, Lietz said, is one reason why she went to tanning salons four to five times a week.
The panelists urged the FDA to provide more information to consumers to make shopping for sunscreen easier. One suggestion was use a four-star system on labels rating the product’s effectiveness.
Even a 5-year-old should know which sunscreens are effective, Lietz said.
Lietz hopes to go back to school in the spring at Johns Hopkins University to become a stenographer. The young wife recently found out she was pregnant, and one of her and husband’s concerns is that melanoma can be transferred to the fetus.
“It’s an ongoing battle,” Lietz said, “and will be for the rest of my life.”