My Knight Cancer Story: 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. It recently worked to support passage of a state law restricting minors’ access to tanning beds. Read how OHSU employee Katie Wilkes joined in that effort and is using her story of survival to raise awareness of the cancer risks associated with tanning.   

Katie Wilkes - Melanoma SurvivorTired of being teased at school about her “ghostly white legs,” Katie Wilkes was just 16 years old 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.

Now, less than a decade later, Wilkes is standing beside the Knight Cancer Institute in its 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 recently joined the Knight Cancer Institute’s director, Brian Druker, M.D., 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 Neil Swanson, M.D., director of dermatologic surgery for OHSU and a specialist within OHSU’s 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 and have people like me,” said Wilkes.  “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 three-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 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 now 26 and 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.

Today, 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 Oregon's new restrictions on the use of indoor tanning devices by minors and see additional facts about tanning and skin cancer. Katie Wilkes is program manager for Research Planning and Development Services at OHSU.