MaryAnn Gerber loved the way she looked with a tan. As a teenager, she visited a tanning salon almost every week. A few years later she noticed a pink mole on her face. The look of it bothered her, so she visited a plastic surgeon to have it removed, only to discover it was a malignant melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.

“I was vain about having a tan and that same vanity drove me to the plastic surgeon when I noticed a mole. Vanity almost killed me and vanity saved my life.”

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MaryAnn Gerber, Cancer Survivor

Gerber was diagnosed with stage III melanoma at the age of 24. Since no one in her family had a history of skin cancer, she and her physicians believe tanning led to her disease. Typically, melanoma at such a young age is caused by a genetic mutation. “My grandfather was a farmer and worked out in the sun all his life, but he wore hats and long sleeves. He never got skin cancer but I had it as a young woman—I’m certain because of tanning.”

Two surgeries later, Gerber is left with a six-inch scar that runs down her left cheek. “It used to bother me, but now I wear it as a badge of honor. It gives me the opportunity to talk about skin cancer and sun safety when people ask me about it.”

Gerber is part of an outreach team at Huntsman Cancer Institute that calls itself “Ten Young Women against Skin Cancer.” All the group members were diagnosed with skin cancer at early ages. All believe unsafe sun exposure and tanning led to their disease, and now they speak out to discourage other people, particularly young women, from tanning. They also promote sun safety, which includes wearing sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, and long sleeves when outdoors for long periods.

“I’m not that much older than the girls I speak to, and they can see that if it can happen to me, it can happen to them. Nearly losing your life for a tan is definitely not worth it.”

Skin Cancer Screening Clinic Provides 10 Years of Free, Lifesaving Care to Utahns

The words “free” and “health care” are an uncommon pair, but at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) they make a great match during the annual Skin Cancer Screening Clinic, a free full-body exam performed by experienced physicians that is available to the public.

Spring 2009 marked the screening clinic’s tenth anniversary. The first clinic took place shortly after HCI opened its doors. Organizers expected about 100 people at the event, but more than 800 arrived.

“I came in about 30 minutes before it was supposed to start and the lobby was full of people,” remembers Glen Bowen, MD, director of HCI’s Melanoma Patient Care Services. “I started at 8 a.m. and left at about 6 p.m. without a break, and we still had to reschedule a couple hundred patients.”

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Skin Cancer Screening Clinic Staff and Volunteers

Originally a walk-in clinic, these days organizers schedule appointments to ensure the clinic is well-staffed for the average of 500 people who participate annually. It’s a true community event—medical students, nurses, dermatologists, and many from rival medical groups across the valley work together for the common good. In the last 10 years, doctors screened more than 5,000 patients and caught an average of eight melanomas each year.

It’s an important health-care screening, especially when you consider the risk of developing skin cancer is 115 times greater if you live in Salt Lake City than if you live in New York City. “Utah’s rates of melanoma have increased steadily in the past 10 years,” says Sancy Leachman, MD, PhD, director of HCI’s Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Program. “Our high altitude combined with the genetic predisposition of our fair-skinned population makes melanoma one of the key cancers to tackle in Utah.” The clinic provides an invaluable service to the community—particularly for the uninsured. Donna Branson, HCI’s director of Patient and Public Education, says patients are always grateful. “At the 2009 clinic, a woman told us she came in the previous year and doctors found a stage I melanoma. She was sure the screening saved her life.”

Because of the Skin Cancer Screening Clinic’s success, HCI physicians and volunteers now offer a similar event, the annual Head and Neck Cancer Screening. It’s part of HCI’s commitment to not only find a cure for all types of cancer, but prevent them from ever happening.