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Cancer survivors warn teens of dangers of tanning, sun exposure

Madison Firsch, a native of Swampscott and survivor of melanoma,  spoke  to students at North Quincy High about the dangers of tanning.

Photos by Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Madison Firsch, a native of Swampscott and survivor of melanoma, spoke to students at North Quincy High about the dangers of tanning.

When prom season and graduation hover closer, many high school students urge one another to sign pledges to stay sober and act responsibly.

But some are making a different sort of promise — to steer clear of tanning salons — after hearing stories from young women dealing with devastating skin cancer.

Heather Webb, 24, was one of the cancer survivers who spoke to students at North Quincy High School.

Lane Turner/ Globe Staff

Heather Webb, 24, was one of the cancer survivers who spoke to students at North Quincy High School.

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“My life is forever changed,” said Meghan Forrest, a 25-year-old Melrose native who told North Quincy High School students during a recent visit that in addition to having her body disfigured by surgery in 2011 to remove a cancerous mole on her left calf, the removal of six lymph nodes in her groin led to her contracting lymphedema, which causes swelling when fluids build up in soft tissues.

Forrest, a registered nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital who now lives in Cambridge, told rotating groups of students who gathered in the high school’s Black Box Theatre that she wears a pneumatic compression boot on her right leg for one hour every day to help with circulation, and the pain from frequent swelling is intense.

“It’s not a fun way to live your life in your 20s,” said Forrest, who started using tanning beds weekly when she was 16 and admits to never having worn sunblock.

Forrest and four other cancer survivors visited the Quincy school as part of the Melanoma Foundation of New England’s seventh annual “Tanning Is Out, Your Skin Is In” pledge drive. The campaign runs through the end of April at schools in all six New England states.

Vicky Chan gets a closeup view of  the facial scanner that uses ultraviolet light to show students the results of sun damage.

Lane Turner/ Globe Staff

Vicky Chan gets a closeup view of the facial scanner that uses ultraviolet light to show students the results of sun damage.

The visits feature powerful testimonials from women in their 20s who engaged in risky behavior — including tanning and not wearing sunblock when outdoors — that resulted in melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Among the speakers who volunteer their time to warn teens about the dangers of tanning was Swampscott native Madison Firsch, who told students she had a mole on her back biopsied two years ago and discovered that she had malignant melanoma.

After undergoing what she called “invasive surgery” to remove the melanoma and check the lymph nodes under her arms, Firsch learned that the cancer had not spread.

Firsch said she began using tanning beds regularly during high school, and rarely, if ever, applied sunscreen when at the beach.

“There is no such thing as a healthy tan. We are essentially ruining our skin, which is kind of creepy if you think about it,” said Firsch, 28, who now lives in Boston and works in alumni affairs at Harvard. “I know some of you want to be tan for prom, but there are safe alternatives to tanning, so please sign the no-tanning pledge.”

The experience of Norwell native Heather Webb, 24, was particularly sobering. Shortly after graduating from college in 2012, Webb decided to have a dermatologist check out a mole on her back that her dad had told her “looked funny.”

A few days later, she received a call from her dermatologist asking her to come in — and to bring her mother.

“When we walked into the office, he handed my mom a glass of water and a box of tissues — not a good sign,” she said. “He informed me that I had Stage 3 melanoma, which has an 80 percent chance of recurrence in the first year, and a 50 percent chance of survival in the next five years.’’

Webb had surgery the following month to remove the mole — “it was the size of a Skittle,” she said — and, because a sentinel node biopsy was also required, ended up with an incision 7 inches long and 2 inches deep.

A couple of weeks later, doctors discovered the melanoma had spread to her lymph nodes, so additional surgery was required.

While Webb is now cancer-free, her road to recovery has included self-administered shots and many hours at an infusion center and at doctors’ offices.

“The worst part is that this was preventable,” said Webb, who also didn’t wear any protection against the sun and went to tanning salons before her high school prom. “Don’t go tanning; wear sunscreen; and pay attention to your skin.”

To show another way students could achieve a golden glow before prom, school representatives brought in a salon owner who handed out 15-percent-off coupons for spray tans.

Kristin Houlihan, a school nurse and adviser to North Quincy’s Students Against Destructive Decisions, said pledges were “flying in” after the program, which included an informational slide show and a high-tech machine that uses ultraviolet light to show facial skin damage that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

“We had 420 kids in grades 9 through 12 participate throughout the day,” Houlihan said. “It’s something they needed to hear.”

She said that even if the school doesn’t win one of the $1,000 prizes being offered by the Melanoma Foundation of New England to schools with the highest number of pledges, she is pleased that students are talking about the dangers of tanning.

“I think this program is amazing,” she said. “Rather than having an older person drone on and read from a PowerPoint presentation, you have young people — not much older than the students — with scars to show and stories to tell.”

Two presenters lifted their shirts and showed their scars to students — including one who, before seeing the scars, said she wasn’t sold on the idea of not tanning for the prom.

“OK, I’m definitely not going to go tanning now,” said Arianna Viscione, a 17-year-old senior who covered her mouth and let out a gasp when she saw the large scar on Webb’s back. “I don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t deal with pain that well, so no, I won’t go tanning anymore.”

Classmate Lauren Magoon, also 17, said she went to a tanning salon before prom last year and was planning to sign up for a salon membership that afternoon so she could be tan in time for the spring prom.

“I didn’t think it was that dangerous, but hearing their stories and seeing how they’re affected by it . . . it’s scary,” she said. “I like the glow that I get from a tan, but it’s not worth it.”

Deb Girard, executive director of the Concord-based Melanoma Foundation of New England, said that many people — not just teenagers — don’t realize how dangerous tanning is.

“Tanning salons and their lobbyists desperately want us to believe that they’re safe, but we have medical data that supports the fact that there is a direct link between ultraviolet radiation used in tanning beds and cancer,” Girard said. “The [US Food and Drug Administration] says that the ultraviolet radiation used in tanning beds is a carcinogen just like cigarettes.”

Several calls seeking comment from the Indoor Tanning Association, based in McLean, Va., were not returned.

Girard’s foundation is working to pass legislation in five New England states to prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from using tanning beds. The law is already in effect in Vermont and eight other states, including California, which in 2011 became the first state to enact such legislation.

In Massachusetts, anyone under 14 is prohibited from using a tanning bed without a written note from a physician. The state Senate is considering a bill that would raise the age on the restriction to 16.

In addition, the bill states 16- and 17-year-olds would have to be accompanied by a parent or guardian when they use a tanning device.

Forrest said that she hopes a time will come when tanning beds are a thing of the past and people will always take precautions before going out in the sun.

“If I had worn sunblock and hadn’t gone to a tanning salon, my life would be so much different today,” she said. “I regret everything, but I wouldn’t change anything. Because of what happened to me, I can share my story and help other people avoid the same mistakes I made. For that I am grateful.”

For more information, visit www.mfne.org. Juliet Pennington can be reached at writeonjuliet@comcast.net.
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