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Here comes the sun: Skin cancer dangers are definitely real

With spring break and prom right around the corner, a local awareness group is trying to spread the word about the dangers of skin cancer.

"Today's youth are very naive," said Tina Johnson, a member of the Monica Jensen Foundation. "They think it's never going to happen to them."

In reality, more than 68,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with melanoma in 2009 -- of those, 8,600 died.

"They say it's the fastest growing cancer because people don't take precautions," Johnson said. "And it's the easiest to protect against."

The Monica Jensen Foundation was formed in 2007 after Monica (Walz) Jensen, a former New Richmond resident, died from melanoma.

"She was my best friend and we just wanted to do something to honor her," Johnson said. "We're hoping to be as well known as breast cancer awareness. That's where we want to go with (the foundation)."

Jensen was diagnosed with ocular melanoma (meaning the melanoma formed in her eye) in 2005 and had to have her eye removed, Johnson said. She was cancer free for two years before it relapsed. She died 6 months later.

Like many athletes, the sun and the danger of skin cancer wasn't a front runner in Jensen's mind.

Many runners, including Jensen, don't think to put sunblock on before exercising, Johnson said. That's why it's important for coaches to teach the importance of protecting yourself during outdoor sports, she said.

"How many kids play tennis, soccer ... how many of them put sunblock on every time?" Johnson asked.

Another one of Jensen's habits was tanning.

"They say it makes you feel good," Johnson said. "Well, there are other things you can do ... like exercise ... to make yourself feel good."

It doesn't take many tanning sessions for everything to go wrong, Johnson said.

"Tanning facilities do post a disclaimer that tanning in excess can cause cancer," she said. "But what they don't tell you is that it doesn't matter how much you do it."

Although not all celebrities are willing to exchange their sun-kissed skin for the porcelain complexion of Nicole Kidman, many are opting to walk into the spray booths and out of the tanning beds.

Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Gisele Bundchen are just a few of the names who have opted for airbrush tans.

"We're just trying to educate kids early," Johnson said. "My daughter learned from (Jensen's) experience. She'll be going to prom this year but instead of buying a tanning package, she's going to do the spray tanning."

Johnson said she gets frustrated with parents who allow their kids to go tanning.

"What are they doing to their kids?" she asked. "I wouldn't let mine smoke a pack of cigarettes and it's basically the same thing."

Ultraviolet light (radiation from the sun and tanning beds) is the most common cause of melanoma, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Melanoma isn't the only skin cancer to worry about though. According to the foundation, those who use tanning beds are 2.5 times

more likely to be diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma and a 1.5 times more likely to contract basal cell carcinoma, both of which can be highly disfiguring.

"It's just not worth it," Johnson said. "Monica had three kids and after she died ... now they don't have a mom."

The Skin Cancer Foundation's Spring Break Checklist:

• A broad-spectrum SPF 15+ sunscreen

• Lip balm with SPF 15+ sunscreen

• Wide-brimmed hat to protect the head and neck

• UV-blocking sunglasses to protect the eyes

• Beach sarong for the legs

• Beach umbrella to help you seek the shade