Mum issues sunbed warning after struck down with cancer twice

A former sunbed user has warned of their dangers after she spent 15 years battling two bouts of deadly skin cancer. Caroline Madden, 58, cautioned those tempted by tanning booths about the risks posed by exposure to UV rays following her “horrific” health woes.

The mum-of-two spent her late teens and 20s getting monthly top-ups on the artificial light machines without knowing that they could be harmful. But in 2009, she began lengthy treatment for skin cancer after doctors inspected a mole on her ankle and found it was a stage three malignant melanoma.

Caroline was diagnosed with the same health issue again in 2018 after the disease - which can spread around the body - was discovered in her pelvis. There is no way of proving that her sunbed use caused her now lifelong condition, but she has urged others to be careful about abusing them.

Caroline said: “The big thing about malignant melanomas is that people don’t take them seriously. You do get the same thing all the time - ‘It’s only skin cancer, it’ll be fine, it will just be cut out’.

"Everyone who smokes thinks they’re going to be the one who doesn’t get lung cancer, and it’s the same with any sort of sunburn or sunbed use. There will be lots of people who never get anything, but it should be taken seriously, but nobody does. Nowadays you have amazing false tans... It’s like, 'Why are you going on a sunbed?'"

Caroline, a personal assistant, started using sunbeds at roughly the age of 17 when they were put in her local health club. She embraced the technology - where customers would spend up to ten minutes underneath a bank of strong lights - as it gave her a healthy bronzed glow. But Caroline was not aware that this regular beauty habit could potentially be causing permanent damage to the DNA in her skin cells.

She remembered: “Everyone I knew used sunbeds back then. I think they were in the local gym. You just booked it and went on, nobody ever spoke to you about them or anything. I maybe went once a month for a few years – dozens of times.”

Caroline said her chiropodist first spotted a suspicious mole at the base of her leg in 2009 - and then asked her to get it checked out by a GP. And after it was found to be a stage three malignant melanoma, she underwent years of treatments.

She said: “I had an appointment at a very general clinic at the local hospital. I went in and waited my turn, and then they said, 'You’re not leaving'. They cut it out and sent that off to be tested, and I think probably a couple of weeks later, they called me back in and it was already then stage three malignant melanoma. So then the slippery slope started of surgery, issues, treatments.”

Doctors later advised Caroline to have her lymphatic system removed from the waist down following further tests. She was then offered to take part in a therapy trial for a drug called Avastin, which was given to her every three weeks for a year. Caroline then received the all-clear in February 2018, but sadly, the disease then re-emerged in May of the same year in her pelvis. She was then given a course of two medicines called dabrafenib and trametinib, which aim to stop virulent forms of cancer from coming back.

Caroline added: “That was horrendous. I had it for 18 months, and my body just constantly rejected it and couldn’t cope with it. I had steroids to counter the other side effects. Coming off it, I had steroid withdrawal, and that’s where we are at now.”

Caroline is thankfully now classed as having ‘no evidence’ of the cancer in her body, although she needed to have a mole removed from her back last month. She said many people are not aware that those with advanced forms of melanomas have to live with their condition - while taking steps to limit their effects.

She said: “You just have to hope it doesn’t hit a major organ, as obviously, you’re then stage four, but there’s no way of knowing if or when that might happen. So you just watch and wait – and keep your fingers crossed.”

Head of health information at Cancer Research UK, Dr Julie Sharp, said Caroline's case illustrated the dangers exposure to high levels of UV rays could cause.

She said: "Sunbeds give off ultraviolet radiation (UV), and there is a proven link between UV and skin cancer. Almost nine out of 10 melanoma skin cancers in the UK could be prevented by staying safe in the sun and avoiding sunbeds." There is no such thing as safe tanning. Some people are at more risk of skin cancer than others, including those with lighter skin tones, lots of freckles and moles, and a history of burning easily, but everyone who uses sunbeds increases their cancer risk.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said that those using sunbeds should follow “clear guidance on the risks”.

They added: “Children are banned from using sunbeds because there is a risk that UV radiation from them will cause skin cancer. Clear guidance on the risks associated with sunbeds is provided by both NHSE and UKHSA, so users can make an informed decision on their use.”

But Gary Lipman, Chairman of The Sunbed Association (TSA), said their use was well-regulated in the UK - and the public should be more mindful of not getting burnt.

He said: “If only UV exposure from the sunshine was as well-regulated as professional sunbed use, we would see far less incidence levels of burning and it is burning that increases the risk of melanoma, not responsible tanning. Professional sunbeds are already well regulated in the UK with legislation prohibiting use by under-18s, a British Standard dictates the maximum UV output of a sunbed as well as provides guidance on the maximum number of sessions allowed per year and that appropriate protective eyewear must be worn.”

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