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I spent all my spare cash on sunbeds and lay out all day to get a tan - but at 31 I'd skin cancer

As temperatures rise in Northern Ireland two people give a timely warning about the dangers of those rays

By Marie Foy and Karen Ireland

Published 19/07/2016

Healthy glow: Elaine now takes a different view to the sun
Healthy glow: Elaine now takes a different view to the sun
Fully recovered: Elaine Simpson with daughter Leanne McDowell
Hat’s sensible: Mike Moran

With the balmy weather set to continue and our current spell of hot summer sunshine more akin to the Mediterranean than Belfast, it's important for fair-skinned Northern Irish folk to protect their pale complexions from the sun's damaging and potentially dangerous UVB and UVA rays.

While the uncharacteristically hot weather is a good time to enjoy the outdoors, experts say that even in our temperate and often rainy summers we all need to take care in the sun.

As up to 30% of all cancers diagnosed here relate to the skin, no-one can be complacent.

The best advice is to prevent sun damage by using a good SPF sunscreen cream, cover up and avoid sunbathing in the hottest part of the day, and to check moles and be vigilant about any changes in the skin. Here, we talk to two people about their experiences of skin cancer.

'Since my diagnosis I warn others about the dangers of sunbeds'

Elaine Simpson (41), partnership manager with charity Age NI, lives in Newtownabbey with her daughter, former Miss Northern Ireland Leanne McDowell. She says:

As a teenager I hated being pale, so I started using sunbeds when I was 16. I've always had fair skin and blonde hair.

But I became addicted to sunbeds and any spare money I had was spent on tanning.

And the craving for a perfect golden glow continued even as I got older. Having darker, tanned skin meant looking and feeling better.

When I had a tan I was confident, so when I got the opportunity to go on sunshine holidays I would lie out in the heat from 8am to 6pm. My goal was to get as dark as I could before it was time to go home, so I used a really low factor sun cream to maximise my tan.

Even if I got burnt I didn't care, as I thought it will go brown eventually. On sunny days at home I would lie out in the garden with no sun protection, and occasionally used oil thinking this was the best way to get a fantastic tan.

I have been working with Age NI for eight years now and, even at work, I wanted to look tanned and healthy.

Ten years ago, though, I was in Cyprus when I noticed a small spot on my chest when I was lying out in the sun.

It was really small but when I came home it was still there.

While I was at the doctors having a cyst on my leg removed, I asked him to look at the spot on my chest.

As it was a minor procedures clinic he could only carry out one treatment that afternoon and said the spot on my chest took priority - so he removed that with results from tests due a week later.

I sensed that something wasn't right and I was fraught with worry - it was the longest week of my life.

To find out more about skin cancer, I went to an awareness talk and learned all about the dangers and warning signs to look out for on your skin, such as changes in spots or moles.

A week later the doctor called me in for another appointment. I broke down and was really upset as I knew it must serious otherwise I would have got a letter with the all-clear.

When I went into his office I was shaking like a leaf and he told me he had good news and bad news for me.

While I had skin cancer, he had been able to remove all of it.

Despite the shock, I told him about my history of sunworshipping and sunbeds - he said I was lucky it wasn't worse - had I not gone to see him when I did it could have been a very different story.

I was appalled that at 31 I knew so little about the dangers of tanning. Afterwards I read about other cases and realised how lucky I was.

Since then, I warn others about the risks of using sunbeds.

I have lectured Leanne about it and begged her not to use sunbeds, but luckily she isn't into getting a tan at any cost the way I was.

While it can feel good to get a tan and others compliment you on how well you look, there is a temptation to keep going back to tanning beds, and it spirals from there.

There should be more information on the risks of using sunbeds and also the importance of using the right sun protection.

Some young women of 16 and 18 used sunbeds every day and they could be killing themselves. It's important they know how dangerous it is.

I was lucky. Not everyone who gets skin cancer is as fortunate as me.

Now, there are so many good self-tanning products, so you can have a healthy glow without any risk to your skin.

I'm a self-tan convert myself now and I never sit out in the sun.

When I'm on holiday I use factor 50 and rather than lying all day in the sun I enjoy walking and sight-seeing instead.

Everyone should wear a high factor sun screen, check your skin for any changes and get a family member to look at your back.

My spot was the smallest thing, hardly noticeable, but it turned out to be cancer, so if you are concerned you should go and have it checked out."

‘After my operation, I’d advise everyone to take some basic precautions’

In 2001, Belfast man Mike Moran (67) was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Mike is the patient and public interest (PPI) representative on the local Care in the Sun group, co-chaired by Cancer Focus Northern Ireland and the Public Health Agency. The retired lecturer in biology and senior manager in various educational bodies, is married to Anne. They have two children, Paula and Michael, and two grandchildren, Orla (7) and Rory (4). He says:

When I was a young child my parents and I didn’t really think the sun was dangerous. I spent a lot of time outdoors, both here and in the Republic, and while living for two years in Cyprus, and we didn’t take any precautions in the sun.

I had a smallish mole in the middle of my back for about 20 years. While I was aware of it, I wasn’t particularly worried and asked my wife to keep checking it from time to time to see if there had been any changes. Fifteen years ago, in 2001, my son was a medical student at the time and he thought I should go to my GP and get it checked out.

Following his suggestion, I went to my doctor. As a result of that visit, at the age of 53, I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. From there, things moved very rapidly. Within 10 days of visiting my GP, I had my diagnosis confirmed and the mole was surgically removed under local anaesthetic with some allied plastic surgery to repair the area of skin.

I was, of course, shocked at the diagnosis, relieved after the surgery and anxious during follow-up hospital visits over the next two years until I got the all clear after five years.

My scar might look somewhat ugly, but it’s a small price to pay to still be here and able to enjoy my family. Many others are not so lucky.

I’m still very active outdoors, but now I am always very sun safety conscious at home and abroad. I cover up my skin as much as possible in the sun, with long sleeves and trousers, a broad brimmed hat, sunglasses and high factor sunscreen.

Regular self-checking of my skin for signs of changes is also a given now and I keep a good lookout for any new marks on my skin.

I’d advise everyone to take simple precautions to protect your skin when outdoors, whether you are out and about at home doing sports or leisure activities, working outdoors or on holiday. Avoid sunburn and don’t get complacent about our cooler, breezy climate.

Skin cancer is more common than you think. It accounts for around 30% of all cancers diagnosed here — so be alert. Early detection of skin cancer is crucial to survival. It is very easily treated, especially in the early stages, as mine was. If you are ever concerned about a blemish or mark on your skin, get your GP to check it out. Leaving it without seeking advice is the worst thing you can do.”

  • For more information about Care in the Sun visit www.cancerfocusni.org  or call the Cancer Focus NI free helpline on 0800 783 3339

Risk factors to watch out for

People most at risk of developing skin cancer include those who have:

  • Fair skin
  • Lots of moles or freckles
  • Red or fair hair
  • Had skin cancer before
  • Family history of skin cancer

Find out more at Cancer Research UK’s SunSmart visit cancerresearchuk.org/

How to take care when the heat is on

Don't get burnt

Sunburn is evidence that the skin has been damaged by too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Over time this damage can build up and lead to skin cancer. Getting a painful sunburn just once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma.

Protect your skin from the sun and getting burned. Remember to:

  • spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm
  • wear a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses
  • use sunscreen with at least SPF 15 (the higher the better), with good UVA protection (the more stars the better)
  • sunbeds are not a safe alternative to tanning outdoors. The intensity of some of the UV rays they give off can be 10 to 15 times higher than that of the midday sun

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