Young paying price for those vanity hours on the sunbed

With skin cancer cases soaring among the young, Sarah Freeman asks what happened to the British love of the pale and interesting?

My first time on a sunbed was almost, very nearly, my last. It was Leeds circa 1991, the city as I remember it was grey and my skin was white.

Looking for distraction on the walk from school to the bus home, a friend and I popped in for a five-minute session in a city centre sun bed parlour. It turned out that a quick tan was not the only service on offer and its usual clients were middle-aged men.

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That should have been enough to put us off for good, but I have occasionally dabbled since. A couple of times in the hope of acquiring something called a base tan which will prevent burning abroad and once in an attempt to prolong the trace of a holiday suntan for a friend’s wedding.

With a typical Irish complexion, golden brown was never going to be my colour, and my freckles and I became resigned to the fact some years ago. However, it seems that not everyone has such an amicable break away from the UV tubes.

According to figures released this week by Cancer Research UK, every day at least two more people under 35 are diagnosed with malignant melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Not every case is caused by sunbed use, but it has been a major contributing factor to soaring number of diagnoses. Back in the late 1970s, when most spent their summer holidays on windswept British beaches protected by cagoules, the age group accounted for about 290 cases a year. This year more than 900 young Britons will be told they have cancer.

Architectural assistant Lindsey Coane, who was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on her leg while at university knows exactly how that feels.

It’s six years since she underwent treatment, but despite having been given the all-clear and taking part in a number of 10k runs to raise money for cancer charities, the ordeal still remains in the forefront of the 27-year-old’s mind.

“I used sunbeds for six to nine minutes at a time for nearly two years while I was at university,” she says. “I was really keen to get a tan and used to get sunburnt on holiday with my friends.

“I am very lucky that cancer was caught when it was, but a lot of skin and tissue still needed to be taken out of my leg. The doctors had no option but to cut through some of my nerves which left my leg partially numb. I had to learn to walk again. I am very fair and I only have to be in the sun for a few minutes to burn, which is why it was so silly to go on sunbeds. As far as I’m concerned now, pale skin is interesting.”

It’s the kind of philosophy Cancer Research hopes to persuade others to adopt, but it’s not easy. Over the last few decades, sun-kissed skin has become as desirable as the latest designer handbag and the cost, at least in the short-term, is not prohibitive.

“It’s very worrying to see that the number of young adults being diagnosed with this potentially fatal disease has risen so dramatically, especially since skin cancer is typically a disease that affects older people,” says Caroline Cerny, the charity’s SunSmart campaign manager. “The explosion in melanoma rates we are seeing now reflects people’s tanning behaviour in the past and desire to sport a suntan, a trend which began in the 1970s with the dawn of cheap package holidays.

“All too often people thought getting sunburnt was part of the process of getting a tan.”

Better early diagnosis means many skin cancer sufferers are successfully treated. However, with the number of cases rising not just among the young, but across all age-groups – in 2007 there were 10,800 new cases jumping to 11,700 in 2008, a rise of 8.5 per cent – the message to stay protected doesn’t seem to be getting through.

“With summer approaching after such a harsh winter, everyone is looking forward to some sunshine, but it’s more important than ever to be aware of the dangers of getting sunburnt,” adds Caroline. “Nor are sunbeds a safe alternative to tanning. In fact, using a sunbed before the age of 35 can increase your risk of melanoma by 75 per cent.

“Young women in particular need to take care since they are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed than men. The fact that skin cancer rates are increasing to such an extent in such a young age group shows that the disease is not just a consequence of lack of sun safety knowledge in previous decades.

“It is our current behaviour that needs to be addressed because the reality is that four our of five cases of the disease are preventable.”