Real life: pregnant and addicted to sunbeds
Joanne Irving, 36, risked her life to get the golden skin tone she craved
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.
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.
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