OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

Melanoma Patient Story

Katie Wilkes' story

Turning the tide against tanning

Katie Wilkes

Tanning beds are known to increase skin cancer risks, and Oregon has one of the highest rates of the disease in the nation. OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute is working to raise awareness of the dangers of indoor tanning especially for young people. Read how OHSU employee Katie Wilkes helped the Knight Cancer Institute support passage of a state law to restrict minors’ access to tanning beds and how she's telling her story to raise awareness of the risks of tanning.

Tired of being teased at school about her “ghostly white legs,” Katie Wilkes was just 16 when she starting begging her mother to let her visit a tanning salon.

For months, her mom resisted, telling her: “You’re beautiful the way you are.” But Wilkes was persistent. She funneled all her teenage angst into a three-page, persuasive essay and was able to convince her mom otherwise.

Less than a decade later, Wilkes joined the Knight Cancer Institute in efforts to raise awareness about the harmful effects of tanning devices.

At age 23, Wilkes was diagnosed with melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. She never imagined that her regular trips to the tanning salon as a teenager could lead to a potentially deadly disease in her 20s.

She joined the Knight Cancer Institute’s director, Dr. Brian Druker, in Salem to testify in support of tighter restrictions on minors’ access to tanning beds. She’s living proof that these devices are harmful to teens, she told lawmakers.

Young people using tanning devices boost their chances of developing skin cancer by 75 percent, studies say. Oregon’s melanoma death rate for women is the highest in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and rates of skin cancer in women  the primary users of tanning beds  have doubled in the past three decades.

“Much of this increase can be directly related to overexposure to artificial sunlight,” said Dr. Neil Swanson, director of dermatologic surgery for OHSU and a specialist within the Knight Cancer Institute.

Swanson said tanning devices expose the body to highly concentrated levels of ultraviolet radiation, including areas of the body that never see the sun. This is especially dangerous for young people because they already receive a third of their lifetime sun exposure by the end of their teenage years, he said.

For Wilkes, indoor tanning started as a way to boost her confidence. She began using tanning beds a few times a month to give her naturally pale skin a bronze glow. By her senior year of high school, she was going two or three times a week.

“It was a social thing … a way to make friends,” Wilkes said.  “And, like most teenage girls, all I cared about was looking pretty and finding a date to prom. I didn’t think twice about the health repercussions.”

She remembers vividly the day she received her diagnosis. Fresh out of college and excited about her third full day on the job at OHSU, she got a call from her dermatologist.

A biopsy from a newly formed mole revealed a malignant melanoma. She needed surgery immediately, and would need to come in for more testing to see if her cancer had spread.

“I called my mom and just started bawling,” Wilkes said. “The first thing I told her was, ‘I feel like I did this to myself.’”

She had surgery to remove the cancer, leaving her with a 3-inch scar on the right side of her chest.

Because she caught the cancer early, Wilkes came out with a good prognosis. But the whole experience left her scared and confused. She feels lucky because melanoma is the deadliest of all skin cancers, but she still worries about the disease coming back.  

Regardless, giving up indoor tanning has changed her life for the better, she said.  

“I have found, ironically, that my boyfriend and my friends like me better now looking natural, and people take me more seriously now that I don’t look like a Barbie doll,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes is an active fundraiser in the community for melanoma awareness and research. She encourages young women to embrace their natural skin color on her blog, Pretty in Pale.

Wilkes’ advice to young women who want to tan has a familiar ring to it.

“Believe it or not, you might be more beautiful the way you are,” she said.

Governor Kitzhaber signs Tanning Bill into law.

Read more about tanning and skin cancer. Katie Wilkes is program manager for Research Planning and Development Services at OHSU.

Shon Ramey's story

Sharing his story to help others

Shon Ramey

I began my seven-year fight against skin cancer in 2007, when I first noticed an itchy mole on my back. I figured it was nothing, but my wife suggested I see a doctor about it. When I eventually relented, the dermatologist revealed a diagnosis I never could have imagined ― melanoma.

I grew up in a small town north of Seattle and, with all those cloudy days, never used sunscreen. In fact, my goal was to get tan as fast as possible whenever the sun did shine. I later spent time living in Texas and the Middle East but never gave much thought to proper skin care.

That diagnosis in 2007 was only the beginning of a long battle with melanoma. I would go on to have three separate surgeries at a hospital in Houston, Texas, where I was living at the time. I moved to Oregon in 2013 but continued seeing a Houston doctor for periodic check-ups and appointments.

It was on one of these trips in early 2014 when I was diagnosed with melanoma for the fourth time. About this time, I learned from a Texas dermatologist about the outstanding dermatology program at OHSU and the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, and I was encouraged to meet with a local physician for further treatment.

I first met with Sancy Leachman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the OHSU Melanoma Research Program and chair of the OHSU Department of Dermatology, in January 2014. In addition to being impressed by her qualifications, I was immediately put at ease by her personable demeanor and interest in my case. She was determined to stop my latest melanoma in its tracks.

Soon after, I started a chemotherapy program under the direction of Dr. Matthew Taylor. A few months later, I had successful surgery done by Dr. John Vetto and am happy to report that I’ve been cancer-free ever since.

I understand now more than ever the importance of proper skin care and remaining vigilant about the dangers of melanoma. I wanted to use that newfound knowledge to help others so, in mid-2014, I joined the Melanoma Community Registry, spearheaded by the OHSU Department of Dermatology and the Knight Cancer Institute. As a member of the registry, I took part in a patient and research symposium in November 2014, and I have shared my story to encourage others to practice proper skin care.

I continue to be impressed and am awed by the level of personal attention from an organization as large as the Knight Cancer Institute. At every step in the process, everyone on my health care team has explained the process and options, involved me in the conversation, and helped me make the best possible decisions concerning my health. I will be forever grateful to the staff at the Knight Cancer Institute for their level of personal involvement and caring compassion.