Real life: preg­nant and ad­dicted to sunbeds

Joanne Irv­ing, 36, risked her life to get the golden skin tone she craved

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I’m sure we can all ad­mit to do­ing things we’re not proud of. As a teenager, and through­out my 20s, I did some­thing re­ally fool­ish. Five times a week I’d use a sunbed. I re­mem­ber ly­ing down and pulling the lid over my body to co­coon my­self in the heat of the bulbs. It gave me a thrill know­ing that in just 20 min­utes my skin would be bronzed and glow­ing.

Look­ing back, I’m so ashamed that I put my health in dan­ger. More im­por­tantly,

I’m dis­gusted with my­self for still us­ing sunbeds while I was preg­nant. You see, not even car­ry­ing a baby could stop my ad­dic­tion.

It sounds ridicu­lous now, but I had my first sunbed ses­sion when I was just 12.

Our neigh­bour had one and my mum Brenda, then 39, was us­ing it be­fore a fam­ily hol­i­day to Gran Ca­naria. Un­like to­day, in the 1990s there were no health warn­ings on sunbed use. The age re­stric­tion was just 12, and since I was al­ready old enough, my mum agreed to let me try it out to get a base tan be­fore the hol­i­day. I loved it, so when sunbed shops be­gan to open on the high street, I’d go as of­ten as I could, us­ing my pocket money to pay for it.

Mum wasn’t wor­ried be­cause the risks back then just weren’t known and she had no idea how of­ten I was us­ing them. It was only dur­ing my 20s that the dan­gers of sunbeds were ex­posed. Still, even as I read

‘We didn’t know the risks then’

about sun ex­po­sure caus­ing skin can­cer, I told my­self it wouldn’t hap­pen to me – I’d been us­ing sunbeds for years and I was fine.

‘You could al­ways use fake tan,’ Mum sug­gested one day. I wasn’t keen on the idea, but de­cided to give it a go, just to see. Only, tan in a bot­tle never gave me the colour I de­sired. And, when I started work­ing as air­line cabin crew, aged 24, look­ing im­mac­u­late was part of the job – to me, a nice even tan was in­cluded in that, so I went back to the tan­ning sa­lon again and again.

Sneak­ing to the sa­lon

Then, aged 27, I met Bobby and two years later, in No­vem­ber 2011, I fell preg­nant. It was then that both Bobby and Mum started to get re­ally wor­ried about my sunbed use.

‘We don’t think you should go any more,’ they said. I could see the fear etched on their faces, so I nod­ded in agree­ment. But just a week later, my re­solve wa­vered and I booked in to the sa­lon.

I’d no­ticed a small spot, the shape of a pearl, sit­ting un­der­neath the skin below my eye, but I thought it was just a blem­ish. Only, two months later, as I treated my­self to a fa­cial, the beau­ti­cian told me the spot had started to bleed. I as­sumed that meant it would dis­ap­pear in a few days time, just like a pim­ple. I wasn’t wor­ried.

In the mean­time, I scoured the in­ter­net for in­for­ma­tion about sunbed use dur­ing preg­nancy, but it was lim­ited. And the truth was, the thought of look­ing pale made me feel phys­i­cally sick. So, for the next eight months I con­tin­ued us­ing sunbeds once a week. My baby bump was small, but wor­ried the store as­sis­tants would stop me from tan­ning, I hid it un­der baggy clothes and would al­ways book in to a pri­vate cu­bi­cle.

Climb­ing un­der the UV lights, I’d look down at my stom­ach. Ev­ery­thing I’d read said that the UV wouldn’t pen­e­trate deep enough. So I took com­fort in know­ing there was no proven risk to my baby. Yes, I knew I was more at risk of burn­ing while be­ing preg­nant, but tan­ning was a way of life for me. I just couldn’t stop.

Omi­nous lump

As the weeks passed, the tiny lump un­der­neath my eye be­came more vis­i­ble. ‘That thing on your face, it doesn’t look right,’ re­marked Bobby. But it wasn’t painful or itchy, so I ig­nored it. Ry­ley was born in June 2012 and as I held him in my arms for the first time, I’d never felt love like it. He was per­fectly healthy. But even be­com­ing a mother didn’t stop me from us­ing the sunbeds. While Bobby went back to his job, work­ing on the oil rigs, I’d ask Mum to look af­ter Ry­ley. Then, telling her I had some er­rands to run, I’d pop to the sa­lon.

It wasn’t un­til Ry­ley’s sixweek check-up that I men­tioned the lump by my eye to my doc­tor. By now it had grown to the size of a pea and friends were start­ing to no­tice it. My GP pre­scribed me a cream and told me to come back in a few weeks if it didn’t clear up. When there was no im­prove­ment, I was re­ferred to a der­ma­tol­o­gist at Clifton Hospi­tal, Black­pool.

Sit­ting in the wait­ing room in April 2013, I was adamant ev­ery­thing would be fine. But the doc­tor took one look at me and di­ag­nosed a ro­dent ul­cer.

‘You’ll need to have it re­moved,’ he said. I wasn’t im­me­di­ately con­cerned. Lots of peo­ple have ul­cers, I rea­soned. But when the doc­tor be­gan ask­ing me about my sunbed use, I started to panic.

‘You don’t think that’s what caused this lump, do you?’ I gulped, my voice trem­bling.

‘I don’t know what your re­la­tion­ship is with sunbeds, but you need to stop right now,’ he replied.

When Ry­ley be­gan to cry, I be­came so flus­tered I left the ap­point­ment be­fore the doc­tor had even ex­plained what a ro­dent ul­cer was. A nurse ran af­ter me, ask­ing if I re­alised how se­ri­ous it was, but I wouldn’t lis­ten. In­stead, while sit­ting in the car, I used my phone to search the in­ter­net. I learned that ‘ro­dent ul­cer’ is an­other name for basal cell car­ci­noma – can­cer. In that mo­ment, I knew I’d never use a sunbed again.

Phon­ing my mum, I broke down. ‘I’ve got skin can­cer,’ I told her, the words catch­ing in my throat. I knew I didn’t de­serve her sym­pa­thy, but she calmed me down and I went home to tell Bobby.

‘It’s all my fault,’ I sobbed. Like me, he was dis­traught, but in­stead of get­ting an­gry, or say­ing ‘I told you so’ he held me. ‘Ev­ery­thing will be OK,’ he promised.

Lucky es­cape

In May 2013, I went to the Royal Pre­ston Hospi­tal, where sur­geons re­moved the can­cer­ous lump and used a skin graft from be­hind my ear to cover the hole that it left. I was awake dur­ing the en­tire op­er­a­tion – the sound and the smell of burn­ing flesh was hor­rific.

I hoped that would be it, and that I could get back on with my life, but just two days later, the skin graft failed. It left a pus-filled, bleed­ing crater on my face and all I could do was wait un­til the wound healed on its own.

I felt hideous and de­pressed, I couldn’t be­lieve I’d let my­self be­come ad­dicted to some­thing so dan­ger­ous. It was more than a year be­fore I fi­nally looked and felt like my­self again.

Our daugh­ter Rae was born in Septem­ber 2016.

‘She’s per­fect,’ said Bobby. Bobby, Ry­ley, now six, and Rae, two, are my life and I would never do any­thing to jeop­ar­dise my fam­ily again. I was lucky that basal cell car­ci­noma is the least se­ri­ous form of skin can­cer, but things could’ve been dif­fer­ent. I want my story to be a warn­ing. I very nearly missed out on see­ing my chil­dren grow up – and that’s some­thing that will haunt me for­ever.

‘I had a pus­filled crater on my face’

With her chil­dren Rae and Ry­ley Des­per­ate for an all-over tan, Joanne ig­nored the warn­ings

Joanne hopes her ex­pe­ri­ence will act as a warn­ing

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