MAHOMET — For Shelly Schuyler, tanning was an annual ritual that started when she was in seventh grade.
She tanned in the sun without sunscreen. She tanned with tanning beds. And she didn't quit tanning until she and her husband began trying to have children.
"My doctor called me out on it," she recalls.
Earlier this year, Schuyler, 39, of Mahomet, had reason to protect her skin in the future, and to keep her two young daughters protected with hats and sunscreen, she says.
A suspicious-looking mole on her collarbone turned out to be stage one melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
There's been a dramatic increase in melanoma among young adults ages 18 and 39 over the last four decades, with the disease increasing eightfold among women and fourfold among men, according to a Mayo Clinic study published this month.
Researchers speculated the use of indoor tanning beds was a key factor in pushing up melanoma rates among young women.
People who use tanning beds frequently are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma, and young women are more likely to use tanning beds than young men, according to Dr. Jerry Brewer, a Mayo Clinic dermatologist and the study's lead author.
The Indoor Tanning Association said the Mayo Clinic study was done in a Minnesota County with a disproportionate number of fair-skinned people at higher risk for melanoma, and the study authors ignored "more likely" melanoma risk factors such as heredity, sun burning outdoors and more frequent travel to sunny vacation locations over the last decade where severe sunburns are more likely to occur.
The study also "failed to take into consideration the increased risk of melanoma resulting from sunscreens that for several decades did not block UVA, the more deeply-penetrating ultrawavelength," the association said in a written statement.
Dr. Jeremy Youse, Schuyler's doctor at Christie Clinic, took a particular interest in the Mayo Clinic study. He was trained by Brewer at Mayo Clinic, where he did his residency and dermatology training, and he's seen melanoma among several of his patients in their 20s and 30s. Many who developed the disease early have a history of tanning, he says.
Studies define heavy tanning as more than 100 times in a lifetime for tanning bed use, Youse said.
"For the average college female, more than three times a week in one year, you're already up to 150 visits, and some of these college women and men do that," he said.
Youse says he urges his patients and others to "be pale and proud."
People can get sufficient Vitamin D from diet and taking a daily supplement, he says, and if they want a tan too, he'd prefer they consider using chemical products.
What can happen if you neglect the danger of too much UV radiation?
Melanoma is potentially fatal, and when it's caught early and treatable, it leaves a scar several inches long, Youse says.
"And if that's all you have to do, you're doing quite well," he adds. "Once it gets beyond the skin, the prognosis is much worse."
About 65 percent to 90 percent of melanoma cases are caused by exposure to ultraviolet light, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This form of skin cancer can spread very quickly, and once it spreads beyond the skin and the closest lymph nodes, it usually can't be cured.
Youse says he knows people won't stay out of the sun entirely, so on a practical level, he urges at the very least avoiding sunburn.
Schuyler's melanoma was caught early, though she was left with a big scar on her neck, she says.
"It wasn't worth having that tan to have that scar," she adds.
When she remembers why she used to tan, it had to do with how she felt about her appearance, she says.
"I always thought to be pretty, you have to be tan," she recalls.
Now, she urges young women to consider themselves beautiful as they are.
As you age, you'll remain more beautiful if you don't tan, she advises, "way prettier."
Factors that increase the risk of getting melanoma:
— Ultraviolet light exposure is a major risk factor. Sources include sunlight and tanning devices.
— The presence of many or irregular moles on the body.
— The risk is 10 times higher for whites than blacks. The risk increases for whites who burn or freckle easily, have red or blonde hair or blue or green eyes.
— Family and/or personal history of melanoma.
— Taking medicines that suppress the immune system.
— Being older (but it is also one of the most common cancers found in people under 30.)
— In the U.S., men have higher rates of melanoma than women.
Source: American Cancer Association