Sonya, 36, loved getting a tan. Until it left her looking like she’d been nibbled on by a shark…
As I stretched out on the sun lounger, I smiled.
‘This is the life,’ I sighed happily as I lay next to my mum in the garden at home. I was 13 and I couldn’t get enough of the hot sun.
I’d been born far too pasty for my liking – my skin was milky white and freckly.
My mum was a sun-worshipper like me and we both loved getting into bikinis and soaking up the rays in our back garden. We’d smother ourselves in SPF 2 oil and bask in the sun rays.
Just after my 15th birthday I started using sunbeds in order to get a base tan for our family holiday to Tunisia.
We went to the tanning salons so often that Mum eventually bought a sunbed for us to use at home. Soon we were using it daily.
I loved when my skin was a golden brown – it made me look slimmer and prettier.
There was just one spot I didn’t like – a brown, round mark on my left knee.
It had been there for a few years and had begun to get ugly and crusty.
Then when I was 24 and holidaying with my friends in Menorca, it began to tingle in the sun.
“That’s odd,” I thought to myself but it didn’t put me off sunbathing the rest of the week.
Back home my boyfriend, Pete McGrory, and my mum insisted I go to the doctor and get the mark checked out.
As I sat in the waiting room I picked up a leaflet on skin cancer. On the front there was a picture that looked exactly like my mole.
“Oh god I think I’m in trouble,” I thought.
This time I was referred to University Hospital, Coventry, to have a biopsy ‘just in case. Doctors made an incision about 4cm long and I was left with a big gaping mark that looked like someone had bitten my flesh.
When the results came back in – it was terrible news.
“I’m so sorry Sonya, I’m afraid it’s skin cancer,” the doctor said.
The words hit me like a ton of bricks and I cried all night to Pete.
It was malignant melanoma – caused by UV rays from sunbeds and the sun and was the most serious form of cancer.
I had to have emergency surgery to cut more flesh from my leg which they followed with a skin graft.
It looked as though a shark had taken a huge bite of my leg but the surgery had saved my life.
I was due to have chemotherapy but then I fell pregnant with my son Joshua so I decided not to go ahead. I couldn’t harm my unborn baby and had monthly check-ups instead to keep an eye on things.
“I promise I’m going to be so careful with sunscreen from now on,” I said to Pete. I knew had to look after myself for the sake of my child.
But four years later at one of my regular check-ups, a student doctor felt a lump in my groin.
“No,” I cried praying that it was just a cyst. But it wasn’t. The cancer was back. I underwent more surgery and it was removed before it could spread.
“There’s not going to be much of my leg left at this rate,” I said.
Then two years my addiction to the sun came to haunt me again when I was doing some gardening.
I felt something brush my back.
“Argh is it a spider? I screamed. I was terrified of spiders.
“No, there’s nothing there,” Pete reassured me as Joshua, 6, watched on laughing.
But I was paranoid and I kept scratching my back.
As I did I felt a lump just under my bra-strap.
“That feels a bit funny,” I said.
I took myself to the doctor and they confirmed the cancer was back – again.
“Am I really going to be able to beat this a third time?” I cried to Pete.
“Of course you are. You’ll do it for Joshua,” he said.
I was ready to write myself off but thankfully it was caught in time and removed.
My left leg looks horrible and my back is a mess. It’s a constant reminder to make me check my skin and to educate Joshua to stay out of the sun.
I wish I could have told my 16-year-old self about the dangers of sunbeds. Joshua could have lost his Mummy because I was addicted to having a tan.
No tan is worth that.
Image courtesy of Rob Igo Photography