A sunbed fanatic wants to warn others that “vanity really isn’t worth this” after her suntan obsession saw her develop painful skin cancer and her hair fall out in clumps.
Lisa McConnell ignored repeat warnings from her family that she was “not a normal colour…far too dark” and would go multiple times a week, lying under the lights for 90 minutes at a time and even using friends’ sunbeds on the highest settings.
The 37-year-old’s obsession began at age 18 and almost 20 years later she’s been left with wounds across her chest and now faces a wait to see how bad the damage will be from the disease in later life.
She’s now wracked with feelings of regret at the times when she would laugh off the warnings of those closes to her, even jokingly telling her family “but at least I’ll look great in my coffin!” when they warned her she was taking her life in her own hands.
Lisa said: “I know I’ve done this to myself, so there’s some embarrassment that it’s because of my own life choices, but I want to make other people aware of what can happen.
“Vanity really isn’t worth this.”
Housing association worker Lisa didn’t let anything stand between her and a nine-minute tan from the moment she started using sunbeds at age 18, as preparation for a night out or a holiday.
But now the 37-year-old has been diagnosed with skin cancer and sun damage she’s taken the brave decision to share photos of the wounds on her chest, and the hair which fell out in clumps as a result of chemotherapy cream, to warn others from taking the risk in the name of beauty.
Lisa said: “I used them for best part of 20 years on a very regular basis. Throughout the summer I’d be going on them pretty much every week.
“I’d usually do a few sessions throughout the week and then have one on the day I was going out, just to get the glow.
“I felt better with a tan, so even before I’d go on holiday, I’d use the sunbed a few times to get a base tan.
“I’d go to a high street sunbed salon, or I’d go to friends houses if they had one at home, and I’d always have the maximum time – usually nine minutes, but sometimes 12.
“Most recently I went to a local salon and it was 90 minutes for £12 so it was obviously cheaper than a spray tan. At the time I thought it was incredibly cheap, but now I realise it was basically just a cut-price way to get skin cancer.”
Lisa, who lives in Tynemouth just outside Newcastle, says she first used sunbeds in the late 90s and noughties.
“Nobody worried about it then. Even when there were stories of people getting skin cancer, I always thought it wouldn’t be me,” she said.
“Family would say to me ‘Lisa, you’re not a normal colour, you’re far too dark’ but to me it was a case of the darker the better. That’s how I felt. What I didn’t think about was that the darker I was, the more damage I was doing to my skin.
“They’d say ‘Lisa, you’ll end up getting cancer’ but that’s when I’d joke about looking good at my funeral, I just never took it seriously.”
Lisa finally began listening to the warnings around three years ago, when she stopped using sunbeds and started taking more care of her skin safety.
Then in September last year she noticed two raised freckles on her chest which were a slightly different colour to the rest.
She said: “They weren’t typical of the skin cancer photos you see, where they’re dark and patchy, they were just a bit redder and sore all the time.
“When I dried myself after a shower I couldn’t rub my chest dry, I had to pat it, because they were so tender.”
Although she told her GP she’d been a prolific sunbed user, she was given steroid cream for psoriasis.
That didn’t make any difference, so after a house move at Christmas, she asked her new doctor for a second opinion.
Lisa said: “One of my doctors works at the Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary in the skin unit so I saw her and as soon as she looked at the freckles she said, ‘I think you’ve got skin cancer’.
“She told me not to be alarmed, but it’s hard not to be when you hear the C-word.”
Four punch biopsies on freckles, leaving holes in her chest to be stitched, revealed Bowen’s Disease and actinic keratosis – an early non melanoma skin cancer and sun damage.
Lisa was treated at Newcastle RVI in August, and has just finished a four-week course of chemotherapy cream, Efudix.
She said: “I was warned by my consultant how horrendous it would be, that my skin would get incredibly sore because it attacks the cancerous cells and scorches the skin.
“But I’m one of the lucky ones because I was just applying it to a few areas, whereas some people have to use it on their whole face which is far worse.
“What I wasn’t prepared for was the hair loss. I was in the shower one day and ran my hand through my hair and it just started coming out in clumps.
“When I spoke to the pharmacist she said it was the nature of the chemo drug, and there is a risk of it being absorbed into the blood stream.”
As the cream continues to work, Lisa will have to go back for a check-up in November but she says she’s now far more vigilant about her skin.
She added: “I know I have to keep a close check on myself and be careful in the sun. I’m about to go away on holiday and it will be the first one where I’ve not spent a week lying in the sun from sun up to sun down.
“That was the kind of holiday I loved, soaking up the sun by the beach, but not anymore.”
Lisa says she wishes she could turn back the clock to 1998 and never start using sunbeds.
“Then the worry of the last few months could have been avoided,” she said.
“Bowen’s Disease can take decades to appear so I don’t know exactly what the lasting damage will be for me, but now I’m older and wiser and would do anything to stop someone else going through this.”