Her Place in the Sun Meghan Rothschild Has a Mission to Shed Light on Skin Cancer

Alarge, powerful, black-and-white image of a slim woman’s scarred torso hangs on the wall in the main entrance of the SkinCatering spa in Chicopee.

It’s hard to miss; the subject’s arms cover her breasts, but not the large, dark, C-shaped scar and patches of uneven skin.

This isn’t the typical photograph that you’d expect to see in a spa that offers non-toxic spray tanning, a safe alternative to tanning beds and booths. Typically, these facilities are adorned with images such as flowers, sunsets, and beaches, chosen to put clients in a relaxing mood. This selection was made with the opposite in mind.

Call it a conversation piece or a bit of shock therapy, if you will, but the photo literally forces people to ask questions, said Leanne Sedlak, owner of the salon. “When they realize what it is and who it is, they have a different view of skin cancer,” she noted, adding that the image presents the harsh reality of what tanning-bed use can do to the body — in this case the body of Meghan Rothschild, director of Marketing at Wilbraham & Monson Academy.

And while the picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, it doesn’t begin to tell Rothschild’s story. Actually, she does that herself at dozens of speaking engagements annually across the country and around the world.

During them, and also in countless media interviews, she tells of how she was diagnosed with stage 2 melanoma roughly three years after she started making weekly visits to traditional tanning salons. As fate, and her own actions, would have it, the cancer was detected early enough to treat. But the scars remain, and Rothschild has made it her life’s mission to let as many people see and hear about them as possible.

She does so through lectures, work with the media, a Web site she started called SurvivingSkin.org, and a video about melanoma that went viral across the globe. With words and pictures, she spreads the word about the reality of skin cancer — an affliction that far too many people, especially the younger generations, still don’t take seriously enough — and also the inherent dangers of ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds.

“There is no such thing as a base tan — it’s a myth — and there is no such thing as a healthy tan,” she said, using some of the language that has become part of her presentations. “A tan is your body’s reaction to damage; it’s putting up a shield to protect itself.

“I think that, eventually, the tanning booth will be the cigarette of our generation,” she continued, referring to the identification of an extreme health hazard and potential killer and the ensuing movement to eradicate its use. “I wholeheartedly believe that.”

For this issue and its focus on women’s health, HCN reveals the passion that drives Rothschild, while also examining the shape and scope of the fight she has chosen to wage. Like the photo in the tanning salon, it’s something that leaves a lasting impression.

Body of Evidence

Rothschild is now the picture of health and striking beauty. Slim and statuesque, it’s hard to imagine that, as a 17-year-old almost a decade ago, she was mortified by her pure white skin and strawberry-red hair.

“I am see-through … transparent,” she said with a laugh. “I was called ’Casper’ or ’Ghost,’ and I felt I looked sickly.”

Rothschild admits that she was like pretty much every other young girl in America. Every little freckle, every extra pound, and every unfortunate blemish just in time for the prom, for a teenage girl, feels like the end of the world. It’s often been said that people see flaws in themselves with far more unforgiving sensitivity than they do in others. Add in the frailty of youth, and those flaws are magnified by 1,000{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}.

And the media certainly doesn’t help. “Look at any ad in the magazines, and you see all the images that you’re inundated with that have some sort of tan,” she told HCN.

The ’healthy-tan look’ may have really hit its stride in the ’70’s with the emergence of the tanning booth in malls and salons, but Rothschild says that it was the pioneering French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Channel and her creation of the famous bikini in the 1920s that welcomed the deeper skin tone. During the Gilded Age, fair skin signified a life of privilege, not one of manual labor, which was given away by a tan. But as fashion changed and more skin was shown, the ’healthy’ color from the beach was soon the new look of wealth and leisure.

In her efforts to hide her fair complexion, Rothschild ironically investigated the safety of tanning booths by seeking advice from a family friend who was a nurse. “The advice was that tanning booths were a great way to get your vitamin D and a very controlled way to get sun exposure.”

Feeling that she’d effectively covered her bases, Rothschild began tanning at 17 and says she instantly became addicted. “I remember being almost neurotic about making sure that I didn’t lose the complexion that I was able to achieve,” she said, adding that she went to the tanning booth for 20 minutes every week, year-round, for two and a half years.

“I’ll look back at pictures of myself and think, ’oh my gosh, I was so dark,’ but being in it at the time, I didn’t think I was dark enough.”

It was a mole on her stomach she’d had for years that was starting to get dark and itchy that prompted her to become concerned, start asking questions, and eventually see a doctor, who gave her a clean bill of health.

But to Rothschild, something just didn’t feel right; she insisted that the mole be removed. And once it was gone, she felt she’d taken care of the issue and all would be bright and sunny with the world. With her weekly tanning schedule of two-plus years, and her self-described neurosis still in hyperdrive, she went directly from the mole-removal procedure to a tanning booth.

“I remember thinking, ’I’m going to have a tan line from the Steri-Strips,’ she recalled. “And that was my biggest concern.”

But that all changed a few days later when a visit to have the simple stitches removed turned into the shock of her life — a diagnosis of stage 2 melanoma.

Burning Issue

Rothschild’s SurvivingSkin.org and information from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) explain that diagnosis.

Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is diagnosed in stages of 0 to 4. In stage 2 melanoma, at least one tumor has been found but has not yet spread to nearby lymph nodes or to distant organs or tissues. However, left alone, the cancer can quickly advance to stage 3 and 4 melanoma, which will invade not only the lymph nodes but, eventually, major organs. Her cancer was caught in time, but only because she pushed for the removal of the odd mole.

Rothschild described receiving news of the cancer as having an out-of-body experience, one that left her with literally no emotion. The next month would include several skin exams, radioactive dye injections, and a grueling, three-hour surgical procedure. More than 70 stitches resulted in four large scars on her abdomen — a constant reminder of what she had literally done to herself.

But she said it was the reaction of her friends, all her same age and who didn’t seem fazed by the skin-cancer diagnosis as a result of her years of weekly tanning, that most alarmed her.

“It wasn’t like I had breast cancer or ovarian cancer,” she recalled. “I think there just wasn’t that link that it can go inside your body and become deadly.”

After a year marked by depression, Rothschild had a realization that, just maybe, something positive could come of her self-inflicted suffering. Remembering her friends who didn’t understand the severity of her diagnosis, she began speaking out about skin cancer to any group who would listen.

That was seven years ago, yet she feels the use of tanning booths, and their connection to a type of cancer that is just as serious as any other, if not treated, is still not taken anywhere near as seriously as it should be.

But little by little, the seriousness of melanoma contracted from harmful UVA radiation in tanning booths is getting its just due.

For instance, in 2009, the World Health Organization officially pronounced that tanning beds are as likely to cause cancer as cigarettes, asbestos, and arsenic. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health estimates that, in 2012, 76,000 men and women will be diagnosed with melanoma of the skin, and more than 9,000 men and women will die of the disease.

Rothschild knows all too well that the heat has to be turned up on skin-care awareness and outreach, and told HCN that she fully supports efforts to legislatively restrict the use of tanning salons.

California has made tanning-booth use under the age of 18 illegal, and Illinois is close behind. Massachusetts is still working hard on those same laws, as are many other states, but Rothschild believes that we are at least five to seven years away from more and more states understanding the dangers of tanning booths — and, unfortunately, the public at large is even slower to understand the issue.

To take efforts to educate about the dangers of artificial tanning to a higher level, Rothschild explains in her speaking engagements that tanning booths emit UVA radiation (ultraviolet aging) only, not the UVB radiation (ultraviolet burning). Both are emitted naturally from the sun, but the concentrated and deeply penetrating form of UVA in tanning booths is three to six times stronger than the sun. She also emphasizes that skin cancer is the only cancer on the rise, while others are decreasing.

And it gets worse.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in young people ages 25 to 29, and the second-most common form for young women ages 15-29 — the population that most often uses tanning booths.

Rays of Hope

With her speaking schedule expanding, especially among student audiences, Rothschild created her Web site, SurvivingSkin.org, four years ago. The site helps to brand her growing efforts to bring awareness of skin cancer to the forefront. It also provides an online setting for people to get in touch with her about speaking opportunities and get the correct information regarding melanoma.

With her impassioned campaign to bring awareness to the world, she has been featured in numerous local news publications and programs, and nationally in Teen Vogue, ABC World News with Charles Gibson, Good Day New York, and many other news outlets. In May 2010, Cosmopolitan magazine honored Rothschild as part of the national publication’s Practice Safe Sun Campaign, and last year, she was recognized as one of BusinessWest magazine’s 40 Under Forty, largely for her efforts involving skin-cancer prevention.

But it was her part as a skin-cancer survivor in a video by the David Cornfield Melanoma Foundation in Canada that has brought the most national attention to Rothschild. The producers of Dear 16-Year-Old Me had a goal of reaching 5,000 individuals, but had 3 million hits in the first month.

The video was named in the top 10 most-shared viral videos of the year, according to Adweek, a national magazine and Web site that covers media news, including print, technology, advertising, and television. Since 2011, the video has been viewed more than 5.7 million times and has many young people asking Rothschild if she is the one in the video.

With her position at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, Rothschild has no plans to make SurvivingSkin.org a full-time job. She enjoys doing what she is doing, but a good dose of appreciation has to go to her employer, a school that completely believes in her mission and is entirely supportive of consulting days that have been built into her contract.

“Our realization of what she brings to the table is the reason she is here,” said Brian Easler, associate head of school and dean of students. “It’s never been a choice whether or not to have her continue her other work with skin-cancer awareness because it was through that work that we saw her strengths and what she could do for us in a work-related capacity.” In fact, she was the Luminaria Ceremony speaker for this year’s Wilbraham Relay for Life in mid-May.

Rothschild said a huge population of her target audience is on Facebook and Twitter practically every hour of the day, so her ability to reach out to them online and keep them educated and engaged is a constant reinforcement for her mission.

In her talks, Rothschild notes that sunscreen, annual physicals, and full-body skin checks by a dermatologist are the best form of protection and early detection. But after all the shocking statistics and tragic stories, she and Sedlak admit that it’s quite difficult to tell a young teen that he or she has to stay out of the sun to remain healthy — but pale.

“They don’t want to hear that,” said Sedlak, who sees her fair share of women from mid-teens to well into their 60s for spray-tanning services. She has joined Rothschild during some of her college-outreach programs to physically offer the alternative solution of spray tanning on site. Both feel that the only safe alternative to harmful radiation and the dangers of tanning booths is through non-toxic self tanning lotions, creams, or sprays.

Sedlak’s business, which is by appointment only at her Chicopee spa location or by mobile visits to homes and offices, offers spray tanning made with a sugar-cane derivative called dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

She sighs as she admits that teens are the hardest demographic to convince. “People in their late 20s to mid-50s are more open to the education aspect,” she said, “but unless there’s some instant gratification for a tan for the prom, well…”

Both feel that a solution has to follow the information and education that teens just don’t want to hear. “You can’t just say, ’no, no, no, stay out of the sun’; you have to show the younger girls that the instant-gratification spray or self-tan does look really great, and is still really healthy, and then they gradually understand.”

But both agree that it will take some time to affect real change.

A Message That’s Skin-deep

As Sedlak looks at that picture of Rothschild’s scarred torso, she notes, “we need to talk more about this. We need more people like Meghan who are passionate about it; people need to know the truth about skin cancer.”

Rothschild, the survivor and educator, is a bright spot in an otherwise dark, misunderstood, and disrespected issue. Through her personal story and education, it’s apparent that her runway model-like natural beauty, in-depth knowledge of melanoma, and cool delivery style make her quite possibly the best spokesperson that advocates of skin-cancer awareness could hope to have.