Warning: This story doesn’t have a happy ending, unfortunately. Still, it has an important message—especially for younger women.
Ashley Trenner’s story is tragic and heartbreaking.
By the time she reached her 30s, Ashley had just about everything a person could want. She was fit, beautiful, young, and happy. She paid it forward, putting extra effort into her job as a salesperson and regularly going above and beyond for the benefit of her customers.
Once, one of her customers at a clothing store wanted a dress in a size that wasn’t available. Ashley owned the dress in the size, so she took a break to go home and bring the dress in for the customer.
“People loved her,” her dad, Bob Trenner, said. “She was very outgoing and had great relationships.”
There was just one thing that she didn’t have.
Ashley was a native of the state of Washington, and her skin was very fair. Like many young women, she was self-conscious about her appearance, and so when she was in high school she began visiting tanning salons.
At first, she’d only head to the tanning booth on special occasions. Gradually, she increased the frequency of her visits. Eventually, she was tanning every other day.
Around the same time, she also became somewhat obsessed with her diet and appearance. She became a vegan.
(Strangely enough, the tanning salon may have given her a temporary reprieve from self-consciousness. Several studies have indicated that the ultraviolet [UV] light from tanning beds can have a mood-boosting effect.)
In any case, Ashley became addicted to tanning, which worried her friends and family. Several people pleaded with her to stop, or at least limit her visits—including her mother, who became worried for Ashley’s health after hearing of a family friend who’d contracted melanoma skin cancer.
“I don’t care if I die from tanning,” Ashley remembered saying, “as long as I die tan.”
Sadly, that statement turned out to be tragically accurate.
In 2003, Ashley found a lesion on her skin. She had it removed, and it was tested for cancer; the results came back negative, but it returned. She assumed that the new lesion was benign like the first.
In 2006, she finally sought medical assistance. By then, the cancerous lesion had spread to her lymph nodes.
“I was scared and a complete wreck,” she wrote later.
Ashley attempted to fight the cancer, receiving interferon treatments that she described as “brutal.” The cancer seemed to go away; then in 2009 it returned as a lump on her hip.
The cancer spread rapidly from there, and in 2011, Ashley realized that she probably wouldn’t survive. “I paid money to be in the position I’m in now,” she said. “I literally paid to get this terrible disease that is killing me.”
But Ashley also knew that she had a chance to save others from the same fate.
She began blogging to spread the word of the dangers of tanning. She appeared on the local news, even wearing a Hello Kitty shirt in an effort to get her message across to younger girls.
Soon, her story began to spread across the internet, appearing on sites like the Skin Cancer Foundation, and although the attention lifted Ashley’s spirits, her treatments were becoming less effective. Ultimately, nothing could stop the progression of her melanoma.
She leaves behind a legacy of kindness, but also an important warning.
“If there’s one person’s life I can affect, that’s a beautiful gift I can give to someone,” she said. “I don’t want them to end up like me. It’s just not worth it.”
She ended up getting her final wish. Thanks in part to her advocacy, both Oregon and Washington passed laws banning people under the age of 18 from using tanning devices.
Her story is also spreading the news about the dangers of over-frequent tanning in more personal ways. When she was lying in the hospital, half of her face paralyzed by tumors, Ashley made the decision to appear in front of news cameras.
A local reporter named Jean Enersen produced a segment for KONG News that told Ashley’s story. By now, more than 1 million people have seen the clip in which she begs young women to avoid tanning beds altogether. She lived to see her courage rewarded.
Cards started pouring in.
People all over the country wrote to the Trenner family and pledged not to use tanning beds. One stranger from the east coast sent a letter explaining that she had just recently ordered two tanning beds. She would be canceling that order, she wrote.
Stories like these gave Ashley strength in her final days. She would pass away before Oregon and Washington passed the laws that she helped inspire, but the letters and pledges to avoid tanning beds were enough.
Along with the impact she was having, Ashley could draw strength from her faith. The family’s devotion to Christianity helps them all cope with the pain of loss.
“We have a wonderful mantra,” Bob Trenner told the Skin Cancer Foundation. “Ashley is on vacation and I’m going to see her again. She is no longer in pain and suffering. It allows you to accept that death is a part of life. But unfortunately, she was taken away too young.”
Shortly after her interview aired, Ashley spent a week at a hospice care facility. She seemed to know that the end was near. She asked her medical team if she could just go home to her parents’ house. They acquiesced. Her boyfriend came to hold her hand. All of her closest girlfriends held vigil at the home. On March 15, 2013, Ashley breathed her last, surrounded by her family and friends.
“They were all crouched together, watching her die,” her mother, Karen, said. “I was amazed that these girls were so in love with her.”
In fact, although Ashley has been gone for four years, her legacy continues to reverberate through the debate over tanning beds.
Even now she is still one of the greatest voices in the movement to educate young girls about the dangers of tanning.
The one-year anniversary of Ashley’s death provides an example that is becoming wonderfully common. One of Ashley’s close friends had daughters between the ages of 12 and 15. In honor of Ashley, the girls encouraged their classmates to sign pledges to avoid tanning beds forever. Hundreds of the teenage girls signed those pledges.
That’s the sort of victory Ashley would be most proud of. It’s terrific to change the law of the land, but until you reach each woman and girl individually, truly communicating that the dangers are real, people will continue to accept the risks posed by tanning beds.
Karen Trenner wrote a touching tribute to her daughter on the Memorial Wall of the Melanoma Foundation’s website. There, she emphasized her daughter’s efforts to stop women and girls from using tanning beds.
“Her brave testimony has already helped friends and strangers to stop tanning in the tanning beds and to get their skin checked regularly,” Karen wrote. “Her story was recently given at a junior high school to help these young ladies say no to tanning in the tanning beds. She has a multitude of fans who call her ‘my HERO,’ and she is that indeed!”