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Cancer survivor is on a mission

CARSON CITY — As a teen in Southern California, Stacey Escalante was obsessed with getting the perfect tan.

"I went to the beach all the time," said Escalante, a former reporter for KVBC-TV, Channel 3, who is now a Las Vegas public relations executive. "I fried my skin with baby oil."

Soon she started to frequent tanning booths. When she moved to Southern Nevada in 1997, she couldn’t stand frying in the 110 degree heat, so she hit the tanning booth at least once a week.

Escalante, 37, paid the price. In June 2005, doctors diagnosed a small mole on her back as a Stage 3 malignant melanoma tumor.

Then came two surgeries, daily shots and frequent scans. She was flat on her back for seven weeks. The hardest part was that she could not care for her two young children.

Today, Escalante has been cancer-free for two years. She ran a marathon this year and intends to run soon in the Las Vegas Marathon.

If she could have one wish, Escalante would want the state Legislature to reverse what it did in 2007 and prevent young people from making the same mistake she did.

She wants a state law forbidding young people from using tanning booths.

The stage has been set. Assemblywoman Ellen Koivisto, D-Las Vegas, said Tuesday that she will again sponsor a bill to regulate the use of tanning booths and prevent those under age 16 from using them.

Despite testimony from Escalante and dermatologists during the 2007 session, Republicans banded together and killed a similar bill by Koivisto. The bill passed, 26-16, but needed a two-thirds majority because it included a fee to set up the state Board of Cosmetology to regulate the tanning industry.

This time, Koivisto figures she’ll have better luck by floating two versions of her bill. One would regulate the tanning industry through a board.

But if the fee would jeopardize that bill, Koivisto will offer a version that blocks children younger than 16 from using tanning booths and requires parental permission for 16- and 17-year-olds. Such legislation should not need a fee, she said, since the tanning businesses would be responsible for self-regulation.

Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, said she still opposes setting age limits on the use of tanning booths. Gansert, the wife of a physician, said she and other Republicans feel such decisions are best left to individuals.

"It is about choice," she said. "Parents should decide what their children should and should not do. It should not be the responsibility of the Legislature."

That said, Gansert, the mother of four, called herself a "sunscreen person."

The Indoor Tanning Association employed a lobbyist at the 2007 Legislature who did not publicly oppose Koivisto’s bill but proposed many changes.

Sarah Longwell, a spokeswoman for the association, said science doesn’t bear out dermatologists’ view that moderate exposure to ultraviolet rays is harmful.

She said moderate exposure to UV rays in tanning booths stimulates production of Vitamin D, which protects the heart and can help ward off certain types of cancer.

The danger comes with extremely heavy use of tanning booths and suntanning that causes burns, Longwell said. Tanning salons that are members of the association take steps to limit the use of tanning booths so that users are not overexposed to UV rays, Longwell added.

Melanoma most likely is caused by genetics, not moderate exposure to light in tanning booths, she said.

But Koivisto said she suffered from non-malignant basal cell cancer and is concerned because statistics show 1 million Americans each year have some form of skin cancer. Twenty-six states have laws preventing people younger than 18 from using tanning booths.

Koivisto said young women, in particular, too often become regular users of tanning salons without being fully aware of the potential consequences.

"Kids now can just go into health clubs and use the tanning booths as much as they want," she said.

According to the National Cancer Institute, almost everyone who uses a tanning booth is at risk for skin cancer. The ultraviolet light in the booths thins the skin, making it less able to heal. Light sources in tanning booths are two to three times more powerful than natural sunlight, the institute says.

It advises people to never use tanning booths and says women who use them more than once a month are 55 percent more likely to develop malignant melanoma, the most deadly skin cancer.

Escalante now speaks regularly at high school gatherings about her experience. Although the media regularly carry stories about the potential hazards, she said, too many students, particularly girls, have not gotten the message.

She says she feels gratified when women tell her they gave up tanning booths after hearing her speak.

There is a 30 percent chance her cancer will return.

"I am a pretty positive person," said Escalante, who gave up her TV career to spend more time with her children. "I am a changed person. But I am not out of the woods yet."

Contact reporter Ed Vogel at evogel @reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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