"More people develop skin cancer because of indoor tanning than lung cancer because of smoking," says the melanoma survivor.

By Kayla Greaves
May 24, 2021 @ 1:42 pm
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Norah O'Donnell
Credit: Courtesy

When CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell got a call from her dermatologist back in Nov. 2016, her world was forever changed.

The biopsy from a recent mole check had come back — and it was melanoma.

Devastated, the journalist understandably felt a range of emotions after she spoke with her doctor. Luckily in her case, the cancer was totally treatable.

"The good news is that while skin cancer is the most diagnosed cancer, it is something that's entirely preventable and is curable if caught early," O'Donnell tells InStyle. "That for me is the hopeful message."

Now, O'Donnell wants to share her own story and message with the world to help others prevent a melanoma diagnosis in the first place.

Here, we spoke with the news anchor about just that, plus what preventative care looks like for her now, and why tanning just isn't worth it.

The mole was found on your back, which can make it hard to spot. How did you find it originally?

Like most women, sometimes you forget to go to your preventative checkups. I realized that I had not had a checkup in a few years at the dermatologist, and my family has a history of skin cancer. Because I'm a journalist, I had heard about Dr. Elizabeth Hale, so I called her up and made an appointment. In the process of this skin check, she had discovered the mole and said, "Let's take a look at it." For me, these small biopsies are pretty regular, so I didn't really think anything of it — until she called me. It was Black Friday weekend and I was doing some shopping in a Bloomingdales. She said the biopsy had come back and it was a form of melanoma. I was really stunned. The lesson for me was that I need to take my health more seriously.

Wow. What exactly was going through your mind at the time?

She emailed me and said, "Can you touch base?" I had then forwarded it to my sister who is a surgeon and she was like, "It's probably just basal cell or something." But Dr. Hale wanted to speak immediately and she said, "Your biopsy came back and its melanoma." I knew enough to know that melanoma is very serious, but the good news was that it was 100% curable. But, you know, I started to tear up and cry in the middle of the Bloomingdales. I felt trapped, and to be honest, I felt a little bit ashamed. I felt extremely vulnerable. I felt like maybe I had done it to myself, I had enjoyed tanning when I was growing up and that sort of thing.

I think going to tanning beds in the '90s and early '00s was so common and no one really took the risks seriously at that time.

We did not. My business with tanning beds was pure vanity, and also because I am fair-skinned, I thought, "Well if I go tan in a tanning bed then I won't be as sunburned when I go outside," which is false — that is a misconception. But now we know how incredibly dangerous tanning is. I mean more people develop skin cancer because of indoor tanning than lung cancer because of smoking.

Wow.

Oh yeah. Rates of melanoma have increased by nearly 800% among women between the ages of 18 to 39 from 1970 to 2009, and experts point to tanning beds as the main culprit.

Norah O'Donnell
Credit: Courtesy

There are a lot of people who seem to think you only need an annual physical, then a paps from your gynecologist and you can just do skin checks at home. Why is seeing a dermatologist just as important?

I'm not qualified to self-diagnosis myself. It's the same with self-breast exams, there's a reason why we go in to see people who are qualified to do this. We should be looking at our bodies and examining to see if something's wrong, but let's also reimagine our relationship with healthcare providers, they're incredibly important. These preventative checkups are so incredibly important. You're supposed to see a dermatologist every year for a skin check — no matter your ethnicity, even if you don't have a family history. If we can prevent health crises, it's going to improve the quality of our lives and lengthen our lives.

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What does your preventative skincare routine look like now?

I put on — even if I'm walking at eight o'clock in the morning and it's 45 degrees out — full spectrum sunscreen on my face, SPF 30. Even if I have a hat and glasses on. I put on sunscreen every single morning. I haven't had a sunburn in more than five or six years.

That's such great news to hear! As a mom, what's your advice for parents and kids when it comes to the important of sun protection?

Sometimes vanity can be a great motivation [laughs]. And the truth is, 90% of skin aging is caused by the sun. So if you want to have great skin when you're older, keep it out of the sun. For children — I have three of them and they certainly think I'm bugging them too much when I ask them to put on sunscreen at every moment — but my kids saw when I had skin cancer. And because it was on my back, they had to put the Aquaphor on my scar, they saw what I had. So they fully understand how dangerous skin cancer is. I think a doctor could speak to this better than I could, but preventing a sun burn is really the most important thing. So just making sure to apply and re-apply [sunscreen] throughout the day. And go get checked [by a doctor] — it'll save your life.