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Bella English

A good tan is not to die for, Pedroia tells students

Kelli Pedroia, wife of Red Sox player Dustin Pedroia, told Quincy High students she was 18 when she got melanoma. Kelli Pedroia, wife of Red Sox player Dustin Pedroia, told Quincy High students she was 18 when she got melanoma. (BILL BRETT FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Bella English
September 21, 2008
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Tomorrow is the first day of autumn, but many of us are still sporting our summer tans. They look terrific, their bronze owners the glowing picture of health. But looks can be deceiving and, as most people now know, deep tanning is not healthy. In fact, it can kill you.

Kelli Pedroia was Exhibit A as she took the stage in the Quincy High School Auditorium earlier this week. With her famous last name - yes, she's married to Dustin, second baseman for the Red Sox - she had the students riveted. She was just their age, 18, when she was diagnosed with stage two melanoma, which is the leading cause of cancer deaths in young women. She had frequented tanning parlors since she was 14, had a pool in her backyard, and worked in the summer at a water park "for the best tan possible."

Spring break of her senior year, she went to a Caribbean island, where she "fried" with tanning oil - to look better for the prom. When she returned, she noticed that a mole had changed in appearance, and she mentioned it to her doctor at the end of a regular checkup. When the biopsy came back positive, she asked: "Mela-what?" She had no idea what it was. The doctor was just as stunned; she was by far the youngest melanoma patient he'd ever seen.

At 18, she had a chunk the size of a large egg removed from her thigh. Still, she continued tanning, both on the beach and in the booth. Two years later came another scare, and she had a spot removed from her clavicle. A year later, spots were excised from her neck.

"I only wish I knew then what I know now," Pedroia told the students, adding that her husband applies sunscreen whenever he's playing during the day. At 24, she stays out of the sun or, if she goes out, wears long sleeves, a large hat, and sunglasses.

Pedroia's speech was the kickoff event of a contest for high school students sponsored by the Melanoma Foundation of New England. Called "Your Skin Is In," the contest is an effort to stop pre-prom tannning.

Students are asked to sign a "no-tanning pledge," and the schools that get at least 70 percent of their prom class to sign will be entered in a raffle for a chance to win $1,000 toward their prom.

Deb Girard, the foundation's executive director, said the South Shore beach communities such as Quincy, Hingham, and Duxbury are among the first targeted in the public awareness campaign.

Melanoma is considered the most serious type of skin cancer because it can spread to other parts of the body if not found and treated early.

When Pedroia asked how many seniors tan regularly, nearly everyone raised their hands. Nicole Driscoll, 16, has sunbathed at the beach since she was a small child, and started going to tanning parlors two years ago.

"I went every day the entire year until it got nice out," she said. Why? "It looks better when you're tan." Still, she called Pedroia's speech "scary" and said she'll probably stop tanning.

Emily Hajjar, also a junior, said she was shocked by Pedroia's story because she's never heard of anyone so young developing melanoma. Hajjar, who comes from a "big beach family," has several aunts who have had less serious forms of skin cancer. "But I never thought it would affect me because I've got olive skin." She hasn't used sunscreen, she said, but she will now.

Morgan Tucker and Kayla Cummings are seniors who have different tanning strategies: Tucker uses a "spray tan" at prom time, while Cummings goes to the parlors twice a week in the spring. "It's almost like a competition here," said Tucker. "People say, 'Oh, you're so tan!' "

Though some of the students say their parents warn them against sunburns and urge them to use sunscreen, others have given them permission to patronize tanning booths.

Girard attributes the jump in skin cancer among those 15 to 39 to the popularity of tanning beds in the last decade. According to the foundation, the use of tanning beds before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma by 75 percent. "It's no longer just your parents' disease," she told students.

Also in the audience was the family of Clare Hynes, a Quincy mother of three who died seven weeks ago of melanoma at age 49. Hynes's sister, Lorraine Principi, teaches English at Quincy High School, and her family and friends made a donation to the Melanoma Foundation.

Like Pedroia, I'm older - much older - and wiser now. Growing up in the South, my friends and I used baby oil in the summer and sun lamps in the winter. I've had a couple of problem spots removed, fortunately not melanoma.

For years, I've been warning my daughter, who is 22, about the dangers of sunburns. When she was recently home for a visit, I commented on her tan; my remarks were more accusatory than complimentary.

"It's from a bottle, Mom," she said, producing the spray-on solution.

Nonetheless, she was out on the deck the next day, soaking up the sun. That is, until I went and stood over her, blocking the rays.

I, of course, was wearing my sunscreen.

Bella English of Milton can be reached at english@globe.com.

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