Using a sunlamp for acne gave me cancer three decades later, by This Morning's Dr Chris Steele
01:20 GMT, 11 December 2012
'I suffered with really bad acne as a teenager,' said Dr Chris Steele
When I look back at the way my generation behaved in the sun 40 or so years ago, quite frankly it horrifies me.
As a doctor, it’s just awful to think about how we readily left our skin vulnerable to sun damage.
In my 20s (I’m now 67), it wasn’t uncommon for some — although not me — to use olive or coconut oil to try to make themselves burn a bit more and get that longed-for suntan.
Is it any wonder we are seeing a surge in cases of skin cancer in this age group
Cases of malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, are now seven times higher than in the Seventies — and it’s most common among the over-65s.
I have just been diagnosed with skin cancer for the third time in 16 years.
Like many of my generation, as soon as I could afford it, I took my family — my wife Monica and our four children — on foreign holidays.
With the advent of cheap flights and package holidays, we were the first generation really to do this.
We loved sunny destinations, such as the Canary Islands or Spain.
In my 30s, I’d lie in the sun and read a book for hours without wearing sunscreen. I have memories of my skin being so burnt it felt raw afterwards.
At the time, like many people, I didn’t think too much of it.
Now, of course, I know I was setting myself up for trouble later on.
A painful sunburn every couple of years can triple the risk of developing a melanoma, according to Cancer Research UK.
If I did wear any sunscreen — which was quite rare as far as I remember — I’d have no idea what factor it was.
Luckily, my wife — a former nurse — and I were instinctively protective of our children in the sun and would not let them burn.
I thank my lucky stars that we did because now we know that burning as a child or a teenager is a risk factor for developing skin cancer 40 years later.
I only started to use sunscreen with more diligence in the late Eighties and Nineties, when I became more aware of the dangers of the sun.
What upsets me is that even now we know the risks, people still go into the sun without sunscreen.
Many think sunscreen is just something for foreign holidays, when getting burnt in the UK is just as bad for your skin as on a Mediterranean beach.
And it’s not just sunbathing.
A lot of people, me included, used to use sunbeds and lamps.
I suffered with really bad acne as a teenager. It covered my face. Obviously, I found this mortifying.
You were supposed to sit in front of the sunlamp for two minutes the first time you used it, but I was so keen to nail my acne that I sat under it for 20 minutes
In a bid to help me, my mother bought me a sunlamp.
It was just a light with one big bulb. You were supposed to sit in front of it for two minutes the first time you used it, but I was so keen to nail my acne that I sat under it for 20 minutes.
Over the next few hours, the most horrendous blisters formed on my face — and I think this could be why I developed cancer on my face years later.
My mother had no idea what she was doing. She was just trying to be helpful.
I also used a sunbed in my late 20s, and using these has now been directly linked to all forms of skin cancer.
It was partly to help with my acne and partly to make me feel good. I had one in my house and used to lie under it for an hour a day every other day.
Luckily, partly due to being busy with other things, over time I used it less and less, and then stopped using it altogether.
The problem is that, back then, just like smoking, we didn’t know how dangerous it was to expose our skin in this way.
Now we know that once the damage is done to your skin it can sit there and cause problems years or decades later.
The ultra-violet radiation damages the DNA in the skin cells, which can lead to cancer — in some cases slowly, in others more quickly.
As a GP, I’ve had people come to see me with something suspicious on their skin.
When I tell them I think it might be skin cancer, they’re sometimes incredulous because they aren’t necessarily sun worshippers — but the damage could have been done earlier in life.
The other problem with skin cancer is that people don’t always know what they should be looking for.
They expect it to be an awful cauliflower lesion or a mole, but often it’s much more subtle than that.
When I had my first skin cancer in 1996, it looked just like a red mark on my cheek — as if I’d cut myself shaving — and even I dismissed it.
Then a few months later while shaving I saw in the mirror that it had actually made an indention on my face, and I knew that was a bad sign.
It was a basal-cell carcinoma — this kind of cancer is highly unlikely to kill you, but it can cause disfigurement.
It’s the most common type of skin cancer in the UK and is typically found on any area that gets exposed to the sun: the face, ears, the back and lower legs.
What upsets me is that even now we know the risks, people still go into the sun without sunscreen
I had a 50p piece-sized section of skin removed under local anaesthetic.
Of course, it was a shock to be told you have skin cancer — and I now know only too well that just that 20-minute session with the sunlamp all those years ago could have been to blame.
As I doctor, I also knew that if you have had one skin cancer you are at higher risk of getting another as it means your skin has sustained significant sun damage.
So I anticipated the worst and, sure enough, a couple of years later, my wife spotted another similar growth on my back — again, a little red mark a bit smaller than a 10p piece.
This time it was a squamous-cell carcinoma.
This is a cancer on the top layer of the skin that tends to spread outwards (as opposed to the basal-cell carcinoma, which is in the deeper layers of the skin and tends to spread inwards).
Squamous-cell carcinoma can spread to deep layers of the skin or lymph nodes, but it is incredibly rare for it to do so.
Again, this was cut out. Then three or four months ago, I noticed a red mark on my right leg just above the knee about 4-5mm across.
Over months, it slowly grew to the size of a 10p piece and I realised I ought to get it seen to. This is another squamous-cell carcinoma.
It was not as big or deep as the other and I have been given a chemotherapy cream called Aldara which I must apply three times a week for four weeks.
When the dermatologist looked me over he noticed I had another one on my right cheek just by my eye — so out of my line of sight.
That one needs to be sent for a biopsy, but is probably another basal-cell carcinoma.
Fortunately, all my skin cancers so far have been non-melanomas — there are almost 100,000 new cases of these each year in Britain.
Melanomas are a different type of skin cancer that are potentially very serious because they can spread to any part of the body.
Whereas non-melanomas look like red patches that might appear crusty, melanomas look a little like moles.
The thing to watch for is a mole that changes size or shape, has different colours in it, or itches or bleeds. I know I am at risk of a melanoma now and I will be vigilant.
I really want to warn the public — and middle-aged people in particular — to keep an eye out for any changes to their skin or any new marks, especially those that grow any bigger.
Once you’ve done the damage to your skin, that’s it — all you can do is to be vigilant.
That’s why I went to the extreme of dropping my trousers on TV — so people can see what they should be looking for.
I just hope this next generation learns by my generation’s mistakes and that skin cancer becomes a far less common event in future.
Interview by Lucy Elkins