by Lexi Lewis as told to Lemondrop

As a teenager growing up in Aberdeen, S.D., I cared about having fun and looking good. I hardly worried about my health. I started tanning at 14 because everyone else did. I never thought of the consequences. I just knew it made me look thinner, prettier, and feel more confident.

I continued tanning until my senior year in high school. I tanned a ton for my senior pictures and for my junior prom. I'd tan at least four times a week for about 20 minutes a session.

I remember adults telling me that some day I'd regret tanning as much as I did, but I didn't care because I just wanted to look good at the time and do what my friends were doing.

A Dangerous Mole
One day, in the fall of my senior year, I noticed a mole on the back of my right arm. It was much darker than my other moles but other than that, it didn't stand out. Like my other moles, it was perfectly round and it wasn't raised above my skin. My friend's mom worked at a dermatologist's office and she thought I should get it checked out but I was scared and wanted to pretend it didn't exist.

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The doctor removed my mole and told me it would be sent in to a lab to be checked. He also said that all visits to the tanning salon must stop. Well, I thought, I better tan just one more time. After I had the mole removed, I went tanning. I know it sounds stupid now, but at the time I wanted to keep my tan.

I went on with my life as normal and a few days later my mom and I were at home when the phone rang. I saw that it was the dermatologist's number and I had a bad feeling. I didn't know why they would be calling after 5 p.m. so I had my mom answer.

I'll never forget the look on my mom's face or the sound of her voice when she answered the phone and heard my doctor's voice on the other end tell her that I had malignant melanoma -- skin cancer. She just looked so shocked and scared.

The "C" Word
The word "cancer" terrified me. I felt so angry. I couldn't believe I did this to myself. I didn't think it was fair. I was only 18. How could it be that it was completely legal to do this to myself considering that I had been a minor most of the time I was tanning?

Once I learned it was malignant melanoma, I never tanned again. A few days after the surgery, my doctor checked my body from head to toe for more moles. Several spots were removed but fortunately nothing else came back cancerous. I should have been happy that the surgery removed all the cancer. I should have let out a sigh of relief but I was terrified and felt that there was cancer all over me and there was nothing I could do about it.

I lived in constant fear that the cancer would come back. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and search my entire body for moles. What is so scary about melanoma is that there are no signs or symptoms of it until it spreads so you need to be looking for it at all times. It's not like you can take a blood test or a get a scan to find out if you have melanoma.

These days, I make sure that I check myself frequently and thoroughly. I also go to the doctor every six months to get checked out for new or changing moles. I've realized that I can't live in fear.

Making a Change
I'm committed to making sure that other minors don't tan. In February 2007, I went with my dermatologist to the South Dakota State Senate to try to pass a law against tanning beds. We were one vote short. I've gone with him to the Capitol several times to tell my story and share why I think it's so important that tanning beds are monitored for those under 18.

At 22, I'm trying to create change so people can live healthier lives, but it's frustrating being an activist. Unfortunately, people are not educated enough about the dangers of tanning, and therefore, lawmakers do not feel regulating tanning beds is something important enough to spend time and money on.

My health scare motivated me to go into the medical field. I'm in nursing school and I work at a hospital as a nursing assistant.

One would think that people would be all for improving the health of children. My dermatologist and I are working on a bill to regulate and possibly even ban tanning for minors. I feel that this is so important because as a minor, it is hard to think of the long term consequences of your actions. Fortunately, I caught my skin cancer early on. Melanoma is deadly, and I don't feel that teenagers take it seriously. I didn't.
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