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From tan skin to skin cancer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Prom is just around the corner, followed by the glorious heat of summer. It is the perfect time for tanning; it is also the most dangerous.

Take it from someone who has been there.

Sarah Smith was born and raised in Spencer and graduated from Roane County High School in 1999. By the time Smith was in the eighth grade, her mother was an obsessive tanner and allowed Smith to tan for a Sweetheart Dance.

During her sophomore year in high school, her parents purchased a home tanning bed, and Smith became obsessed with maintaining a dark tan, sometimes tanning twice a day. She went to the pool on many occasions and said, "I never remember wearing sunscreen."

Smith went first to Marshall but later transferred to West Virginia State University, where she met her husband, Jon. In September 2008, their daughter, Addison, was born. Her world seemed almost perfect, but the family would soon encounter a major life obstacle.

On March 18, 2009, Smith was diagnosed with Stage III Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. She began treatment with the drug Interferon in June of that year and completed the 164 treatments the following June.

"I was determined to fight," Smith said. "It all happened so fast; there wasn't much time to overanalyze."

She coped with her diagnosis through faith and praying, along with constant support from her husband, family and church. She also focused on raising her young daughter.

The diagnosis only made her family closer and stronger. Jon filled the roles she could not, while still filling his own. He was the husband, wife, father, mother, teacher, cook, etc. Smith's dad and siblings would take her to her treatments and sometimes cook dinner for her family. It made everyone more aware of their current health, especially because skin cancer can be genetic.

"I have one friend, Amber Sloan, who checked on me literally everyday. She was great through it all," said Smith, who is currently in remission, though still being monitored.

After everything that has happened, she doesn't take anything for granted. Now she has a whole new perspective on life.

"Sometimes when I wake up and my body hurts [as a lingering side effect of treatments], instead of complaining, I thank the Lord that I am alive to feel the pain," she said.

She has learned what is and what is not important in life and learned to give people the "space of grace" because it's hard to know what someone may be dealing with.

"I am thankful that we were blessed to have [Dr.] Michelle Endicott to help us along the way. She was definitely my advocate! Looking back, I have no idea how I would have coped without her support," Smith said.

Now, Smith rarely turns down the chance to try something new, even if it's not always "crazy." Among the crazy things she has done are ziplining, including a line over a half-mile long with speeds of 60+ mph, and skydiving from 14,000 feet. She's also hiked the Diamond Head in Hawaii.

"After cancer," she said, "I'm not much scared of death."

Smith is passionate about saving girls from having to deal with everything she has had to. On Valentine's Day 2012, she testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and told her story.

She hoped a bill would pass to put age restrictions on tanning beds. It did not then, but a similar bill introduced this year did. According to the West Virginia Legislature website, it completed legislation April 13 and is awaiting the governor's signature.

Smith said, "I don't classify myself as an advocate in the sense that I lobby for it just because that's not a process that I am familiar with, but I absolutely support the complete ban for teens under 18.

"Parents don't always make the best decisions for their children, so I feel strongly that the government needs to fill that role."

Smith has great compassion for young girls and urges them to embrace themselves as they are.

"If I had one message for teen girls everywhere, it would be that you are God's unique design," she said. "Whatever it is that they are struggling with, they need to know that they were created for a purpose and that they are loved with an unwavering love.

"No tan is worth dying for."

Risk factors for skin cancers like melanoma include family history, having a lot of moles or freckles and being an avid tanner, all of which applied to Smith. To learn more about skin cancer, including the different types and how you can protect yourself, visit the Skin Care Foundation at www.skincancer.org.


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