Sun worshipper who spent 10 years using tanning beds horrified to be diagnosed with skin cancer

  • Mon,29 Jul 2019 07:55:15 AM

A super-bright businesswoman who did not realise that sun damage caused skin cancer told how she was recently diagnosed with the disease for the second time in six years – the day after graduating with a PhD.

Admitting that coming home without a “burnt neck and shoulders” with her family meant you “had not been on holiday,” not only did Sarah Carlick, 45, neglect to use the appropriate sunscreen growing up, she also regularly used home tanning beds until reaching her 30s.

Diagnosed with stage one melanoma – a type of skin cancer that can spread to other organs in the body – in January 2012 and stage three melanoma in December 2018, Sarah said: “Sun damage is the new smoking.”

She added: “I see people sunbathing and want to run up to them and tell them to stop. People are slowly killing themselves and they just don’t realise.

“I was a child of the 70s. There was a massive boom in visiting the continent over summer months, and protection from the sun just wasn’t something you thought about.”

Divorcee Sarah, who has a daughter, Ella, nine, had received the all clear in February 2012 from her first melanoma, only for it to return last year – leading to 12 months of targeted drug treatment, which she will finish in February 2020.

But Sarah grew up in blissful ignorance of the harmful effects of the sun, recalling how she spent childhood summers caravanning in the south of France with her parents, Ros Carlick, who passed away in February 2013, aged 63, of ovarian cancer, and Ellis Carlick, 70, a former managing director of a furniture company, and sister, Susan Shell, 48, now an account manager.

“If you didn’t come back home with a burnt neck and shoulders, you hadn’t been on holiday with my family,” she said.

“I’m in no way blaming my parents, it was a sign of the times – we were all ignorant. The attitude to sunburn was very much grin and bear it and wait for it to go down.”

 

And when her family bought a portable sunbed for home use, she had regular sessions to build a ‘base tan’ before holidaying.

“Looking back, I can’t believe how often I would use the sunbed at home. It must have been for at least 10 years, but once again it was just pure ignorance,” she continued.

“I was of the school of thought that it was safer to use sunbeds and build up a gradual tan, before exposing yourself to hotter climates. I never in a million years thought it caused damage – especially not cancer.”

“To think I used to use tanning oil, to make my skin fry, makes me physically shudder. What on earth was I thinking?” Sarah continued.

And in January 2012, at the same time as her mum Ros was battling ovarian cancer, Sarah noticed an unusual mole on the back of her shoulder.

“It was a difficult time, as my mum was in the throes of this evil disease and my health anxiety was through the roof,” she said.

She added: “I was getting changed one day when I noticed a crusty mole on my shoulder and my mum insisted, I book an appointment with the GP.”

The very same week, Sarah was referred to Lancashire’s Royal Preston Hospital, where doctors took a sample of the mole and sent it off for testing.

Two weeks later, they confirmed she had stage one melanoma – meaning it had been caught early and had not yet spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Scheduled for a wide local excision – a procedure where a small area of diseased or problematic skin is removed – at the same hospital a week later, because of the early diagnosis, no further treatment was needed.

“My biggest fear was waking up and finding out I’d needed a skin graft, but luckily they were able to stretch the skin and it slowly began to heal,” she said.

“The stitches were unsightly for a long time, but when I think about how bad it could have been, I breathe a sigh of relief.”

Sadly, while Sarah was given the all clear, her mum was less fortunate and passed away in February 2013, a year after her daughter’s surgery.

“Losing Mum was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through, it was so hard seeing her at the end, after going through rounds of chemotherapy,” she said.

“When I received my diagnosis, she was so worried I’d have to go through the same, but luckily I didn’t – and I think that was a great relief to her.”

Receiving the all clear gave Sarah a new lease of life and she threw herself into education, spending the next five years working towards a PhD in New Technologies for Child Protection at Lancaster University.

But, just weeks away from graduation and running two businesses, on November 19, 2018, she noticed an unusual lump on her collar bone and, once more, her world came crashing down.

“I was getting ready for a meeting and I clocked the lump in the mirror. It was exactly the same as last time. I just stared in the mirror and cried,” she said.

 

Visiting her GP, she was referred for a biopsy within days and on December 12 last year – just a day after her graduation – Sarah was told she had stage three melanoma and it had spread to her lymph nodes.

She said: “It didn’t feel real – in a way it still doesn’t. I couldn’t get my head around how something as simple as a mole or lump could lead to something as serious as stage three cancer.”

On January 8, Sarah had another local excision operation, as well as having roughly 20 lymph nodes removed, at The Christie Hospital in Greater Manchester.

After a successful procedure, she was put on a 12-month course of targeted drug therapy, a form of treatment for melanoma that stops cancer cells from dividing and growing.

Seven months on, she has cancelled an upcoming holiday to Australia in October with Ella to focus on her recovery.

Now working with North West Cancer Research, Sarah is campaigning to encourage people to use the necessary protection from the sun and to check their skin regularly for any abnormalities.

Speaking out as Britain has been gripped by a heatwave, with temperatures reaching record breaking highs, she said: “My entire attitude to the sun has been turned on its head.

“I would never dream of letting Ella go out in the sun unprotected. Instead she’s covered from head to toe in factor 50 sunscreen and protective clothing.

“If we knew what we did about sun damage when I was growing up, I honestly believe that I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today.”

She concluded: “Ignorance is a killer. Sun tans last a few weeks, while a cancer diagnosis stays with you for life.”

For more information on North West Cancer Research’s skin cancer awareness campaign and advice on skin cancer, click here

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