I never imagined I would be diagnosed with cancer at age 23

Katie used to tan at least once per week and sometimes more frequently.

By Katie Wilkes

My name is Katie. OHSU employees may know me as the editor of OHSU Research News or the person you email when you need help finding grant funding. What they probably don’t know is that the first week I started working at OHSU, I was diagnosed with the most deadly type of skin cancer: melanoma.

While it’s not always easy sharing such a personal story, when I found out OHSU was supporting Oregon House Bill 2896 (the “teen tan ban”), I knew I had to get involved.

I started using tanning beds when I was 16 years old. Like many teenagers, I was self-conscious about my appearance, especially after being teased for having “ghostly” white skin my whole life. At first, my mom refused to let me tan. She would say things like, “You’re beautiful the way you are,” and tell me how tanning would make my skin look like leather by the time I turned 30. No matter what she said, though, I hated the way I felt when I looked in the mirror. So many other girls were tanning, why shouldn’t I be able to do it, too?

After months of begging, my mom finally caved and I starting visiting tanning salons with my friends. Many salons in Portland never even checked my ID to see if I was underage, let alone kept track of how many minutes I spent in the beds.

When I was 16, I was an honor roll student at Saint Mary’s Academy in downtown Portland. Oddly enough, that’s part of what made tanning seem okay to me. It wasn’t as bad as drinking or smoking. Even the “good girls” wanted to be tan for prom and senior portraits. By the time I left for college, I was tanning at least once a week, sometimes more.

I never imagined I would be diagnosed with cancer at age 23. I found out on the third day of work at OHSU. Within days, I was referred to a surgical oncologist who made a three-inch incision on my chest to remove the melanoma. I was lucky enough to catch it before it spread, but that’s what’s so scary about melanoma. It’s not just skin cancer. It’s unpredictable and can grow from Stage I to stage IV in a heartbeat. I continue to be haunted by anxieties that I’ll develop a second melanoma. Many survivors do, and maybe I won’t be so lucky next time.

At age 16, I thought I understood the risks of tanning, but who really thinks they’re going to get cancer before starting their first real job? In reality, melanoma has become the most frequently diagnosed cancer for women my age—and it’s not going to stop unless we do what we can to protect children from the dangers of indoor UV tanning.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity testify in Salem with Dr. Druker and several others in support of House Bill 2896. I think this proposed legislation has triggered an important discussion about the skyrocketing melanoma rates in Oregon. I feel very lucky, not just to be alive to share my story, but also to have the opportunity to speak on behalf of so many other people impacted by melanoma in our state.


Katie Wilkes manages the Research Funding & Development Services program at OHSU. Outside of work, she blogs about her experience as a 20-something-year old melanoma survivor at www.prettyinpale.org, and she is coordinating the 2nd Annual Portland Melanoma Walk, which is scheduled for Saturday, May 11, at Wallace Park in NW Portland.

7 responses to “I never imagined I would be diagnosed with cancer at age 23

  1. Katie, your story is very powerful! I admire your strength and want to thank you for testifying on this important public health issue.

  2. Katie, you are an inspiration! Thank you so much for sharing your story and hope this message gets across to todays youth! AND, you are beautiful!

  3. Hi Katie,

    Remember me from Ferguson Wellman?:o) Thank you for sharing your story. I am grateful you caught your cancer early on and will pray you remain cancer free. You look beautiful ‘pale’! My daughter Ava is now 8 and is very fair. This story reminded me of the importance of not letting her tan as a teen even if she begs and pleads to!

    Take care and God bless,

  4. Thank you Katie, your message is so important! My nephew, who had light skin,eyes and hair died of melanoma at age 27, 2 months after his wedding. He never used a tanning bed-just had what was considered “normal” sun exposure in his lifetime. Know the risks of exposure, family history and your own risk factors, a tan is not worth your life.

  5. Thanks for being brave and sharing your story. I was diagnosed with skin cancer in my early twenties as well.

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