"Most people think melanoma [is] just your skin," she said. "It's very frustrating, because people don't realize it can go everywhere in your body."
While Zele ultimately recovered from melanoma, she recounts the severity of the treatment.
After a plastic surgeon removed the skin surrounding the removed mole, it took her eight weeks to walk or put pressure on her leg. She still has a three-inch scar. She said she has had 26 moles removed.
Additionally, after surgery, Zele went through treatment that included interferon, an immune-system-modifying drug.
Five days a week for four weeks, she had to go to a facility where she was hooked up to an IV and given high doses of the treatment.
"We referred to that as 'boot camp,'" said Zele of the treatment, which caused fever and nausea.
Following the IV treatment, Zele went through nine months of injections of interferon, given three days a week, which had the side effects similar to the flu.
Zele recalls that she had to stop the treatment twice, and both times the side effects were worse when she resumed treatment.
Since finishing interferon treatment over three years ago, Zele said she suffers headaches, which she blames on the therapy, and memory loss, of which she said her doctors are still unsure if it's related to the treatment.
"I didn't realize how serious melanoma is. I really wish I would have known," said Zele.
The study has also triggered some debate about whether minors should be allowed to use tanning beds at all.
"In my opinion, tanning should be illegal under age 18, even with parental consent," said Dr. John Messmer, medical director of the University Physician Group in Palmyra, Pa. "It should be taxed to make it less appealing since it serves no useful purpose. When I see a patient with a tan, I put on my 'Oh, my God, what happened to you?' face!"
Other physicians took a more moderate tone.
"My personal impression is that parents are probably in a better position than these researchers to know how much risk they and their children should take, but it is surprising that the tanning establishments wouldn't follow the laws of their states," said Dr. Steven Feldman, a professor of dermatology, pathology and public health sciences at Wake Forest University.
But having undergone treatment for what she feels is the consequence of her past tanning habit, Zele sees a tanning bed ban for minors as a no-brainer.
"[I'm] fully for it," she said. "You can't smoke until you're 18, drink until you're 21, it's really the same thing. I think that law would be great. I wish it would pass. If that was a law when I was younger, I don't think I would have ended up with melanoma."
In her own childhood, Zele said, she tanned under high pressure for seven minutes at a time, during her 15-minute breaks from her job at Big Lots.
"I really thought skin cancer was a rash that could be lasered off and you'd be OK," said Zele.
Now, Zele said, she shares a quote she heard when she speaks about tanning.
"Beauty is only skin deep. Skin cancer goes much deeper," she said.
Courtney Hutchison contributed to this report.
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