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Tattoos May Hide Signs Of Skin Cancer

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Many studies have been done in recent years looking for a possible link between tattoos and skin cancer.

While they haven't found a direct connection, doctors said that if you have a tattoo, keep a very close eye on it this coming summer.

Eighteen years ago, Melissa Sabatini chose to get a tattoo.

"It was something all my friends were getting done. We were on vacation, just seemed like the right thing to do at the time," Sabatini said.

What she didn't choose is what came along later.

Sabatini ended up with a flat spot along the edge of the dark ink which darkened over six months. She brought this up with her doctor and subsequently had it removed.

"She said, 'Oh yeah, we have to take a look at that. That doesn't look good," said Sabatini. "Now that I'm a little bit older and this is happening, I [kind of] do regret getting the tattoo now."

John Nasci had a similar experience.

"I noticed a little red mark after three or four years of having this tattoo," said Nasci. "He said. 'Let's look at that, let's biopsy it.' He biopsied it, it went out, and in nine or ten days they called me back with some news that I didn't want to hear."

Both were diagnosed with severely abnormal cells. A pre-cancer in Sabatini's case and Nasci had the deadly skin cancer melanoma.

Are these cases related to the tattoos themselves? Scientists have done a number of studies in recent years and none have found a direct correlation.

"There's never been a medical study showing an increased risk of skin cancer and tattoos," said Dr. Brian Horvath from Horvath Dermatology. "As recently as 2007, there are only 13 cases in the medical literature about melanoma skin cancer arising in tattoo."

So what is going on then?

Doctors said it's a combination of two things, one is that more young people are getting skin cancer in general.

"It is true that melanoma rates are increasing in young people, and more young people are getting tattoos. So, it's not surprising every now and then you'd see a skin cancer in a tattoo," said Dr. Horvath.

Secondly, darker pigments in some tattoos might mask problem areas in the skin. If someone doesn't notice them right away it could lead to a late diagnosis.

"We want to catch them when they're very early, and sometimes the early changes are very subtle. Tattoo color can obscure those subtle, early changes that we're looking for," said Dr. Horvath.

Because of the surgery, John has to get his tattoo repaired, which is a small price to pay in his mind.

"When something like this hits you, you change your thinking," he said.

Melissa agreed; she now keeps her tattoo covered and wears lots of sunscreen. Her doctor removed the growth, and her prognosis was good.

While melanomas in tattoos are purely coincidental, there are other skin conditions that can be traced directly, such as allergic reactions to the ink, skin infections and hepatitis.

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