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Karen Graham spends a lot of time at the beach, but she definitely isn't there to get a tan. If the Skin Mafia really exists, Graham, a middle-aged fireball who works out of a small office in a Hayward business park, is one of its Dons. One afternoon a few weeks ago, Graham had just returned from a weekend at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where she led a team of dermatologists on a "Mole Patrol." They lined up sunbathers and scanned a parade of bared shoulders and stomachs. "Four probable melanomas," she boasted. "They wouldn't even have known."
The following week, Graham was headed to New Orleans' Jackson Square for another Mole Patrol, then across the Atlantic to England for an international conference on UV rays. Then it was briefly back home, and then on to Sacramento to testify in front of the state Senate, urging them to pass the tanning salon bill. "It should be a national bill," she says. "I just hope it has some real teeth to keep the kids out."
If it sounds as if Graham is possessed by a great passion to eradicate melanoma, that's because she is. Her son, Billy, died in 1994 at age 21 from skin cancer and she made a promise to him: She'd beat this disease.
Billy's death shocked even the dermatological community. "The doctors kept saying, 'But he's only 21!'" she recalls. "They hadn't seen anything like it." He led the typical outdoorsy teenage lifestyle, Graham says. He went around shirtless, riding his skateboard and dirt bikes around their Castro Valley home. He had a mole just over his left shoulder removed for aesthetic reasons when he was sixteen. "He didn't like the way it looked," his mom recalls with a small laugh.
When Billy was twenty, though, the mole returned. Since it was inflamed and bleeding, he returned to a dermatologist, who misdiagnosed it and sent him home. Six weeks later, Billy felt a lump in his armpit. Left untreated, melanoma retreats beneath the skin, and once it metastasizes, a patient's life expectancy is typically between three and six months.
"He was on 2,500 milligrams of morphine," Graham says of her son's final days. "And it didn't even touch the pain. He suffered tremendously."
Even then, Graham was left in disbelief, stunned by the havoc caused by the sun. In a way, it still baffles her.
More unsettling is the notion that people actually go seeking UV rays for something as frivolous as a "look." Melanoma, as anyone in the debate will tell you, is easily preventable. It's a cancer that we can actually see on the outside, but in some weird way, we've dismissed it as: It's only skin cancer. "I was guilty myself," Graham says. "When I heard 'melanoma,' I said, 'It's just skin cancer, so get it removed.' But it was too late."
In 1996, Graham launched the Billy Foundation, not only to raise funds for research, but also to develop legislation. At the time, her effort was monumental: She was taking on the sun, slow-moving bureaucrats, and the entire tanning industry -- both lotion makers and tanning salon owners.
Five years later state Senator Don Perata authored the first US law of its kind, requiring California schools to provide sun-protective hats for all students who want them (Australia has had a similar rule for a decade). In a later law, Graham persuaded the state to amend its education code to let schoolchildren apply sunscreen on campus without a doctor's note. Now, she has found herself pulled into the tanning salon legislation debate, and has been asked to apply her legislative punch.
Graham is involved because she sees tanning salons as a sort of pusher for a culture that longs for bronzed skin. She is unimpressed by salon owners who say they're providing a "safe tan." Of course we need a small bit of sun, she says. But in her view, the salon owners are still peddling a product that advocates sun worship. Some days, she says, she parks her zebra-striped Mole Patrol van outside tanning salons just to plant a seed in the head of a potential customer.
"Here in the US, excess rules," Graham says. "It is so American thinking to say, 'If a little bit is good for me, then I need a whole lot more to feel even better.' It's quicker, it's faster -- who has time to lay out in the sun all day? -- I can get it accomplished in a shorter amount of time. In order to look good in my shorts and bikini, I need to go to a tanning salon! And become bronze!"
After a few weeks at Tropical Solutions, Diana is impressed. "I definitely think tanning indoors is safer," she says. "If I couldn't go in there, where would I go? I'd lay out at the pool with my friends, and probably end up burning."
She's been accepted to UC Berkeley and will live on campus. She's excited; it's just a short drive through the tunnel for food raids and laundry drop-off. This winter, Diana says she'll continue to indoor tan because she likes the way it looks. And she doesn't want her legs and arms to return to that milky-white paste.
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