I loved having a golden glow. But my tan came with a deadly cost…
By Demi-Leigh Saunders, 20, from Bolton
I rooted in my bag for some spare coins, fishing out a handful of silver.
“That’s just about enough for nine minutes,” I said, handing over the cash.
Soon I was lying under the bright UV glow of the sunbed, totally stripped off to get maximum exposure.
I loved being tanned. And, despite the fact I was only 14, I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.
When I was younger I lived with my grandparents in Spain.
My gran was always chasing me around with a bottle of sun lotion, determined that I’d take good care of my skin.
However, I soon built up a natural golden glow from long days playing out in the sunshine.
Then, when I was 14 we moved back to the UK. To my disappointment, my tan soon faded.
I was always moaning to my gran.
“I hate being pale,” I said.
“Get some fake tan then love, that will sort you out,” she said. “Look after your skin, don’t use sunbeds,” she added.
The fake stuff wasn’t as good though. I hated being streaky. For me, nothing could beat the buzz of seeing that natural deep brown.
So, I started saving up my pocket money to pop into the local tanning salons after school.
I looked older than my age, so I was never asked for ID. Salons were less strict back then.
Naively, the risks never even entered my mind. I’d heard tanning could give you skin cancer, but I assumed it was something that happened to older people.
All my friends were tanning too. so I convinced myself we’d be fine.
Then, when I was 16, my tanning obsession reached new heights.
My grandad was a sunbed sales rep, and my grandparents kept an old bed in their house.
They were planning to fit it with collagen bulbs for my gran. They’re supposed to reduce wrinkles, and they are safer as they don’t emit UV rays.
But, to my delight, they never got round to it. And the sunbed was even squeezed into my bedroom as there wasn’t space elsewhere.
My grandma said: “I don’t want you to go using it Demi-Leigh.”
“Of course I won’t, I promise,” I reassured her.
But, as soon as she went to sleep I’d sneak on under the warm glow of the UV lamps. I found the heat soothing… in fact a bit too soothing.
One night I dozed off under the lights. I woke up with a start, my face prickling with pain.
“Oh no!” I said, rushing over to the mirror. My face was bright red and badly burnt. To my horror, little blisters had even formed on my eyelids.
The next morning I plastered on layers of foundation to hide my mistake from my gran. I told myself: No harm done, I’ll be fine when the redness fades.
Nothing was going to stop me tanning, or so I thought. Then when I was 18 I discovered I was pregnant.
For the first time, I knew I had to keep away from the sunbeds. I never gave a second thought to the health risks to myself. I knew it wasn’t a good idea with a little one on the way though.
For those nine months I stuck religiously to tan from a bottle. After all, just because I was expecting didn’t mean I wanted to be pale!
But, after Eliza was born in March 2013, I was relieved to go back to my old obsession.
“I’ll do nine minutes please,” I said, handing over the cash to the sunbed shop receptionist.
My skin was delicate after having so long away from the sunbeds, but I wasn’t going to go easy on it.
I had months of abstinence to make up for.
Soon I was back under the lamps at least twice a week, plus I’d use fake tan to top up my glow. Seeing my dark reflection in the mirror gave me such a boost.
Then, one morning I was getting dressed when I noticed a fleshy lump on my inner right thigh. Curious rather than worried, I gave it a poke. It didn’t hurt.
I had a wart on my knee when I was younger, and I assumed it was the same thing. So I put it to the back of my mind.
Then, around three months later in March last year, I popped round to my gran’s for my weekly spray tan.
She loved giving me the treatment. “We’ll have you looking brown in no time,” she said.
I whipped my clothes off, and stood in the tanning tent ready to be sprayed. “Ooh that’s cold,” I flinched, as my gran turned on the machine.
She started working her way across my body. But when she got to my thighs, she stopped.
She asked: “What’s that lump on your leg?”
“Oh it’s nothing, it’s been there ages,” I said.
But my gran leant in for a closer look. “You can’t ignore things that like, I’m making you a doctor’s appointment,” she said.
Within ten minutes she was on the phone, booking me in. I rolled my eyes as she gave me the appointment details for a few days later.
I said: “If it makes you feel better, I’ll go.”
So, several days later I found myself taking off my jeans to show the GP. He shone a light over the lump, and peered at it through a magnifier.
“It looks like it has active skin cells. I think you’re better off popping down to the hospital,” he said.
I didn’t know what he meant by that, but stupidly I didn’t ask.
“Take this referral letter to the dermatology ward and they’ll sort you out with an appointment,” he added, handing me a folded print out.
With a free afternoon on my hands, I decided I’d go to the hospital there and then.
I was hoping I wouldn’t have to wait long for an appointment, so they could just remove the lump and my gran would stop fussing.
But, stood there in the queue for the dermatology reception, I unfolded the doctor’s letter and glanced over it.
What I read chilled me to the core.
Referral for possible skin cancer, the GP had typed.
Skin cancer hadn’t even crossed my mind. My heart was racing as I handed over the letter.
The receptionist told me: “We’ll book you in for an appointment and let you know when we need you back here.”
I was barely listening though. Worst case scenarios were racing through my mind.
Am I going to die?
Back home, I broke down as I told my grandma the devastating news.
She was shaking with worry. I tried to reassure her I’d be fine, but that night I spent hours on my phone checking out the disease online.
Skin cancer symptoms, I typed into the search engine.
To my horror, the photos that came up looked just like my lump.And when I read that tanning was a big risk factor, I knew I’d done this to myself.
Suddenly, being brown didn’t seem so important. Not long after, I was back at the hospital to see a dermatologist.
This time I had my grandma there for support.
“I’ll have a look at this lump, then I’ll check the rest of your body,” the doctor said.
My hands trembled as I pulled off my clothes.
“All done, take a seat,” she smiled, after going over every inch of my skin.
“The good news is I don’t think it’s cancer,” she said.
My grandma gasped with relief.
“Are you sure? How do you know?” I asked.
“I’m a consultant here, and I’ve seen skin cancer many times before,” she said, reassuringly. “We’ll take a biopsy from the lump to get it checked just in case though.”
For the next week I relaxed, thanks to doctor’s certainty that I was safe.
Then, a week later I went back to the hospital for my results.
“Don’t worry gran, I’ll be fine on my own,” I told her. After all, the doctor said it was nothing.
The consultant called me back into her room, and shut the door behind me.
She said: “There’s no easy way to say this, but you have melanoma.”
“What do you mean? What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a type of skin cancer,” she explained.
I was struck numb with shock. I managed to hold back the tears as she explained I’d have to have surgery.
Desperate for support, I called the one person who was always there for me. My gran. She was at the hospital within five minutes, holding my hand with tears running down her face.
I began to sob too.
If I die who will look after Eliza? I thought.
The next few weeks were a blur as I had yet more appointments with a surgeon to arrange the next step.
I went under general anaesthetic for the lump to be fully removed, and covered with a skin graft.
My gran even paid £6,000 for me to have a lymph node biopsy carried out privately, rather than see me join a six week waiting list.
When the news came back that the cancer had spread to the glands in my groin, I wondered how I’d have the strength left to fight.
But just one look at my daughter gave me the courage to be brave. I couldn’t leave my little girl without her mummy.
So I went back under the knife to have my glands removed, and woke up on the ward with a fluid drain hooked up to my wound.
I spent the next two weeks in and out of hospital as my body struggled to heal.
It was a dark time for me. Laid up in bed with nothing to take my mind of things, I started imagining my own funeral.
What flowers would I have? What songs would be played?
The morbid details swum through my brain.
In the meantime, my grandma was phoning the hospital every day to get my final results. Would I be cancer free?
Then, one day I was lying in bed in my pyjamas when my mobile buzzed.
“You’ve got the all clear,” my gran shrieked down the phone.
I burst into tears with pure relief. I would survive.
That was in May last year, and now I’m making the most of life.
For the next five years I’ll have to have full body skin checks every three months and CT scans every six months. It’s a small price to pay though.
It’s like I’ve been given a second chance.
I want to tell other girls that if skin cancer can happen to me then it can happen to them too. It’s not worth risking the disease, just to be brown.
There’s only one way to tan safely… and that’s from a bottle.