Obsession with tanning

Pat Endel, 61, of the Isle of Palms walks to the beach to soak up some sun. The regular tanner makes few concessions when it comes to her time in the sun, but has remained cancer-free.

Karen Yossef loves the sun. And despite the fact that she had an aggressive basal cell carcinoma removed from her chest last winter, she’s not about to give up laying out.

“It’s my joy in life,” says Yossef, who is 72 and moved to the Charleston area from Ohio 10 years ago to be near the beach.

Yossef’s three-day weekend routine during beach season usually involves arriving on the Isle of Palms around 9 a.m., running for an hour or longer, and then returning to her lounge chair to read, doze and watch people until about 5 p.m.

“It’s like I died and went to heaven,” says Yossef, who works four days a week as a charge master for supplies at the Medical University of South Carolina.

She’s not afraid of getting skin cancer and admits to wearing sunscreen only on her face and head, in part because her hair is cut short, but does go for routine skin checks.

Yossef says she thinks sunshine is part of a healthy lifestyle that includes healthy eating and meditation.

Does Yossef, as some recent studies may suggest, have a tanning addiction? Yossef doesn’t think so.

“I’m a life lover. And if you love life, how can you not love the sun?”

But science is starting to make the connection between tanning and a druglike reaction in the brain, which may explain why the masses continue seeking sunlight.

One study, first published in April 2011 online in the journal Addiction Biology, found subjects exposed to ultraviolet light in tanning beds showed a relative increase in regional cerebral blood flow in brain regions associated with the experience of reward.

In the news recently has been a story out of New Jersey about Patricia Krentcil, 44, who is charged with endangering her then-5-year-old daughter by taking her to a tanning booth. Krentcil, herself an avid tanner, denies the charges and says that her daughter, now 6, was in the room with her but not the tanning booth.

Local physicians such as Dr. Diana Antonovich of MUSC say that an ultraviolet obsession may be at work with some patients.

“Sun exposure has been found to cause the release of chemicals (endorphins) in the body that can increase a sense of well-being,” says Antonovich, who is also Yossef’s dermatologist.

“I have had patients who offer this as the reason for their continued tanning, claiming that it just ‘makes me feel good’ and planning to continue the behavior even if it is causing the sunspots they were hoping to be rid of during their visit.”

Still, Antonovich thinks tanning devotion, for many, is clearly driven by a desire to improve one’s physical appearance, fueled by the belief that pale skin is unattractive.

“Many of these individuals even propose that they look slimmer when tan,” she says.

Antonovich adds that whether it’s obsession or vanity, or a combination of both, tanning remains a habitual behavior for many.

“Unfortunately, many chronic tanners are young women who are not regularly seeing a dermatologist, maybe even avoiding the dermatologist for fear of being challenged on it,” says Antonovich. “This is particularly scary considering the rising incidence of skin cancer, including melanoma, among young women.”

Among the statistics is the fact that melanoma is increasing faster in females ages 15-29 than males in the same age group, according to a 2007 study.

The American Cancer Society notes that 1 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year and that one in five Americans will develop it during their lifetime.

Dr. Joel Cook, who sees many advanced cases of melanoma, says that while a tan isn’t as fashionable as it used to be, “I still have a whole clinic full of women in their 20s.”

Cook treats 200 cases of melanoma a year and says, “It’s a problem that’s out of control. ... There’s no excuse for a tan.”

Pat Endel, 61, of the Isle of Palms has had a friend die of melanoma, and yet she still is an avowed tanner and doesn’t use sunscreen.

She does make one concession: She doesn’t hit the beach until 2 p.m. (The American Cancer Society says the sun’s rays are most intense from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

“I used to burn to a crisp as a kid growing up in Connecticut. I remember going to the hospital more than once for burns,” says Endel, recalling how she and others used baby oil while tanning in the summer.

And yet, so far, Endel has not been diagnosed with any skin cancers during her regular visits to the dermatologist.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.