In early spring 2013, Ashley Trenner is lying on her deathbed, never able to recover from what has taken over her body. But the Washington woman doesn’t want her passing to be completely in vain. And as a consequence, Ashley chooses to persuade youngsters not to take the path that has led her to a desperate struggle against a cruel and remorseless disease.
You see, Ashley had always believed that a glowing complexion had helped her look younger, and this had made her determined to keep up that appearance all year round. If she had looked healthy back then, though, now the story was quite different. In 2013 she had reached the end of a painful fight that had seen her try everything to stay alive.
And in a video made by news station KING-5, Ashley tells viewers, “I paid. I paid money to be in the position I’m in now. I literally was paying someone to get this terrible disease.” After facing up to her fate, then, she makes her peace with the world, writes her will and hopes that her story will ultimately help others.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Ashley moved to Woodinville, WA, when she was a toddler – although she never stopped rooting for the Steelers. And in the small town near to Seattle, she grew up alongside her brother, Darin, in the loving care of parents Bob and Karen.
In adulthood, then, Ashley became a bar manager in Kirkland, belying her nickname of “The Boss” with a sunny personality. And it’s fair to say that the Washington native had once been a “girly” girl; she had had a great love of Hello Kitty and the color pink, and she was never averse to a sprinkling of glitter, either.
So perhaps it’s not a surprise that Ashley ultimately developed a love of beauty. When just a high schooler, she went to a salon with Karen, hoping that her skin would end up having that special glow in time for prom. That in turn led to further visits before vacations to make sure that she looked her best ahead of her sun-drenched holidays.
Then, after graduating high school, Ashley took up a job at Nordstrom. She excelled in her role, too, sometimes even going the extra mile when there was something she could do for a customer. And one story about the young woman’s time at the retailer exemplified that can-do attitude.
Apparently, a Nordstrom patron had come in asking for a dress in a particular size that the store didn’t have in stock. But Ashley had exactly the right garment at home, so she brought it in and handed it to the shopper. And her bosses were so blown away by this service that they rewarded her with a $500 bonus for going above and beyond.
Even the high acclaim that Ashley received at work wasn’t quite enough to boost her low self-esteem, though. And a lack of belief in herself meant that over time, the retail worker developed an obsession over how she looked. In fact, that anxiety about her appearance eventually became a major part of her life.
For Ashley, this extended to careful control of what ate, as her mom would go on to explain. In 2015 Karen told the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF), “[My daughter] was a vegan and watched her diet. She was into looking good and being thin.” And looking good to Ashley led to her disliking her naturally fair skin.
Yes, Ashley didn’t like how pale she was, so she decided to fix it by visiting the tanning salon – attending on average nearly once every two days. And it seemed that nothing mattered as much as maintaining her now-darker skin color. Apparently, the young woman had once proclaimed, “I don’t care if I die from tanning as long as I die tan.”
What’s more, Ashley is said to have found that her trips to the salon helped her with the depression she sometimes suffered. Indeed, it’s been suggested that the ultraviolet (UV) light to which skin is exposed when tanning may increase the amount of chemicals that lift mood in the brain. In any case, it seems that Ashley came to depend on her tanning habit.
Then, for a while, Ashley headed off to Arizona. And while living in the state, she discovered something that could have been alarming at first: a little bump on the right side of her buttocks. The blemish was only as big as the point of a pencil, however, and after further inspection once it had been removed, it turned out not to be cancerous.
Following Ashley’s return to Washington not long after, though, the same bump turned up again. This time around, she assumed that the growth would once more turn out to be benign – meaning she didn’t pay it much mind. Since the bump was so small, too, Ashley figured that she would just live with it. But, sadly, this turned out to be a huge mistake.
In addition, Ashley felt that it just would cost too much money to have the lesion removed again. The young woman now worked in a coffee shop, you see, and didn’t have too much spare cash. She also didn’t hold medical insurance, and that meant the cost of any surgical procedures would have to have come out of her own pocket. With hindsight, however, this would have been money well spent.
In fact, when a person has melanoma that is caught really early – so, before it has spread to the lymphatic system or other parts of the body – their chances of survival are pretty good. Indeed, in such cases, 98 out of 100 individuals live for at least five years after diagnosis. If you miss or ignore a melanoma and let it grow, however, the outlook starts to get much grimmer.
In Ashley’s case, the lesion got bigger until it was about the size of a quarter. And by 2006 – three years after she had first noticed the blemish – it had also started to hurt. Finally, Ashley could no longer ignore her health issue, and so she went to consult a dermatologist. But the medical professional ultimately had bad news for her: she had a melanoma.
What Ashley had was a cancer of the skin that originates in melanocytes – the cells responsible for skin color. In particular, melanoma begins when UV light damages the DNA of those cells. The condition is not uncommon, either, with the SCF claiming that nearly 200,000 people are likely to be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2019. And it’s deadly serious, too; it will likely take 7,000-plus lives in the same year.
The diagnosis shocked Ashley, who would later write, “I was scared and a complete wreck.” And worse news followed: the cancer had spread into the lymph nodes in her groin. She would need surgery, then, to remove the nodes in the hope of preventing the cancer from moving throughout her lymphatic system.
And in 2015 Karen told the SCF how sad she had been that Ashley had not requested her assistance, adding, “She should have come to us earlier.” Nevertheless, Ashley’s nature seemingly stopped her from reaching out. Her mom revealed, “She was very independent and too proud to ask for help.”
Melanoma had been no stranger to Karen’s family, either, as the disease had already taken an uncle of her father. And while Ashley’s mom had begged her to quit going to the tanning salon, the young woman wouldn’t have it. She wrote in a 2011 blog post, “I thought I was invincible and would never get skin cancer.”
Then, with the lymph nodes and the tumor both excised, it was time for Ashley to begin chemotherapy. And the experience turned out to be incredibly unpleasant, as the drug that she had to take to resist a return of the cancer, Interferon Alpha-2b, can cause symptoms similar to a very bad flu. Of her time in chemo, Ashley would later write, “It was brutal, and I was miserable for two months.”
Fortunately, the course of treatments initially appeared to be a success, giving Ashley three years with no sign of the cancer. But Thanksgiving 2009 brought an unwelcome guest: she had a lump on one of her hips. And Ashley told her mom that she feared the worst, saying, “I think the melanoma is back.”
Sadly, Ashley was right, meaning she had to undergo further chemotherapy. She also joined trials of two drugs that experimenters hoped would give her immune system a boost, but they didn’t help her, either. In a further bid to battle her condition, then, she traveled up to Portland, Oregon, to give another therapy a try.
But as Ashley’s father, Bob, recalled to the SCF in 2015, that final procedure was deeply unpleasant. He said, “The last treatment involved injections in the tumors in [Ashley’s] groin and were very painful.” Even so, he noted, his daughter had showed enormous spirit, adding, “She was an incredible trooper through it all.”
Yet Ashley’s suffering was all for nothing, as by January 2011 she had cancer across her groin, in her back and in her lungs and liver. And, tragically, further treatment with a new drug didn’t have the desired effect. Facing up to the seriousness of her situation, then, Ashley decided to speak out about the catastrophic impact of not taking the advice that she had been given.
Ashley wrote in a 2011 blog post, “I didn’t listen when I was warned about the dangers of tanning beds and not using sunscreen.” And as a result, she felt a pressing need to do what she could to stop others from making the same mistakes that had put her in this position.
In the meantime, the cancer continued to spread, eventually making its way to Ashley’s brain. In October 2012 the Washington native therefore underwent a type of surgery that irradiates brain tumors as well as more drug therapy in the form of Interleukin-2. The effects were harsh, however, as Karen went on to reveal. The parent said to the SCF, “She shouldn’t have done [the treatment]. She was always vomiting.”
Finally, after a January 2013 operation to get rid of a blockage in Ashley’s intestines, her mom and dad received some grim news. And the surgeon laid it out for them in stark terms, saying, “Your daughter is a very sick girl. She has weeks to live.”
Ashley faced her prognosis bravely, however, and was determined to share her story and help others. And when Washington TV station KING-5 turned up to film her, she put on her prettiest face, donning luscious false eyelashes and gleaming make-up. As the cream on the beauty cake, a manicurist also turned her nails pink – the color that she loved.
But despite the glam look, Ashley was deeply unwell. Tubes fed her pain meds – all that was left of her treatment – while tumors had paralyzed her face’s right side. Even in the midst of this ordeal, though, Ashley’s irrepressible good humor had not completely deserted her, and she couldn’t help smiling as she talked.
Ashley did not hold back, either, when delivering the message that she hoped would reach youngsters. She’d even put on her Hello Kitty shirt with the aim of getting through to girls who watched her. And while speaking to the station, she revealed, “I paid money to be in the position I’m in now. I literally paid to get this terrible disease that is killing me.”
Fortunately, Ashley’s tale had the powerful impact that she had desired, and her family subsequently received a deluge of correspondence from people who had sworn off tanning. One individual from the east of the U.S. told them, for example, that learning about Ashley had led her to stop an order for a couple of tanning beds.
Then in March 2013 Ashley came home to her mom and dad so that she could leave this life in peace. And after a seven-year battle with melanoma and with her female friends, boyfriend and parents by her side, the 40-year-old passed away. Karen later remembered, “They were all crouched together, watching her die; I was amazed that these girls were so in love with her.”
Yet Ashley’s death was not completely in vain. For starters, one of her doctors, Brian Druker of Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University, was prompted to change the law in the light of his patient’s experience. In April 2013 he saw legislation that he had championed forbidding children from indoor tanning without a prescription ultimately pass in Oregon. A measure much the same came into law in Ashley’s own state of Washington the following year.
Karen shared with the SCF how the new statutes had made her and Bob feel, explaining, “We’re really proud of both of these accomplishments.” And they showed that pride in part by awarding grants in Ashley’s name. Scientists have received money each year to help fund research into new therapies for skin cancer.
Yet the new laws are just part of Ashley’s legacy. In the KING-5 video, the woman gives her dying wish, saying, “If there’s one person’s life I can affect, that’s a beautiful gift I can give to somebody. Because I don’t want them to end up like me; it’s just not worth it. It’s just not worth it. I can’t express that enough.”
Then when the video was posted to YouTube, at least one of the more than one and a half million people who watched it did seem to be swayed. That user commented, “I was going to go tanning for the first time ever next weekend as a treat for my birthday. I think maybe I will get my nails done instead. I don’t need a tan.”
What’s more, the message got back to the daughters of one of Ashley’s friends. And a year after Ashley had died, those youngsters – ranging from 12 to 15 years old – took in a petition to class, prompting dozens of their peers to sign a pledge never to use tanning salons.
But, of course, Ashley herself wasn’t around to see the impact of her words. And that tragedy was brought home when her father shared how he and his wife had coped with their loss. Bob told the SCF, “We have a wonderful mantra: 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.”