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I'm tanorexic

Tanorexic Nicole thought she was getting a healthy glow - but she couldn't have been more wrong...

I'm sun-safe these days
Nicole Johnson, 40, North Narrabeen, NSW

Everyone knows how dangerous sunbaking is, even when you do the right thing and slip, slop, slap. But when I was in my teens, there was no real information about the risks you ran if you exposed your skin to other UV light. Light from sunbeds, for example. Back then, all that mattered to me was a perfect tan. And if I couldn't get it naturally, sunbeds seemed like the perfect answer. You see, I hated my naturally fair skin. I just wanted a gorgeous glow.

At first, I ignored all of the sunscreen rules, baking on the beach for hours, until my skin turned a blazing red. Then, at 17, I discovered a sun spot on my upper lip. Scary words like cancer and melanoma sprung into my head. Going to see a doctor, I was relieved when he told me that it wasn't cancerous. But after removing the spot, he sat me down. 'You must stay out of the sun,' he warned me, and then listed all of the dangers.

This time I listened, vowing never to burn again. But still hankering after a golden glow, I investigated other ways to tan. When I realised I could buy a sunbed and bronze up at home, I started saving straightaway. The machine was about the size of my bed and I tanned lying underneath it. In my mind, this was the safe option. There were no warnings, nothing to worry about.

Relieved that I was out of the sun and away from the dangers of skin cancer, my parents allowed me to have the bed fitted in my room. Without ever leaving home, I could get the beautiful bronze colour I longed for. And soon I was using the machine up to three times a week for hours at a time, craving a darker tan than ever before. But a year later, I read about a girl who'd died after her sunbed malfunctioned. Worried that mine might be faulty too, I returned it and instead of tanning at home, I went to a solarium once a week to get my fix.

My spots were skin cancers
Every session gave me the boost I needed to get through the week ahead. I felt so much more confident with a tan. But it definitely wasn't cheap and the weeks when I couldn't afford it were sheer torture. My boyfriend Luke couldn't understand why tanning was so important. Being tanned was who I was, it was a part of me.

When I was 23, I booked a holiday. As I packed my bag I began to panic. How would I survive without a sunbed?Thoughts of posing for photos without my glow were frightening. I had no choice but to jam my bags full of self-tan. I was going to have to fake it.Over the next few weeks I made do with bottle bronzer. It was then I noticed strange marks all over my body.

As I rubbed the tan onto my skin, I could feel rough patches on the surface. Taking a closer look, I saw brown spots were scattered across my face. Back home in Australia, I saw a skin specialist. As he examined the discoloured areas, he had bad news. My world came crashing down as he explained that the spots were non-melanoma skin cancers called basal cell carcinoma and pre-cancerous ones called actinic keratosis. While they were easy to remove, they were just the start. They could return at any time as a more serious skin cancer.

I couldn't understand how this could've happened. I'd stopped sunbaking when I was a teen. Terrified, I thought back to the hours I had spent under the radiating heat of a sunbed. 'I've been using them since I was 17,' I confessed. At the time doctors were only just discovering the health risks, but already they knew there were dangers. I listened in horror as he explained that the damage I had done using sunbeds could be irreparable. Having the cancers zapped off with a laser, the doctor was able to remove the spread of brown lumps on my face. But my treatment wasn't over. Far from it. No-one knew how, when or where the cancers would return, or how serious they'd be when they came back.

As the years passed, the dangers of sunbeds emerged. I read in horror as radiation experts advised that sunbeds should carry health warnings about causing skin cancer. Instead of weekly tanning appointments, I visited the doctor. As soon as one lot of spots were removed, new ones developed. Some days I had up to 10 removed in one visit. Luke supported me through each treatment, but by the time I turned 30 I'd had a terrifying 1000 cancers removed. Since then, I've stopped counting. My body is riddled with scars from where the spots used to be and every time I see my doctor, I am terrified they'll be melanoma.

Luke, Brad, Holli and me
Marrying Luke and having our kids Holli, 10, and Brad, 12, has made me realise I can't live in fear every day. It's thanks to them I can accept my scars. They remind me how I've got to keep fighting. That's why I fully support the NSW Government's decision to ban solariums in 2014. I am living proof of just how dangerous sunbeds can be. Both of my kids know the dangers of the sun. Whenever they're outside, they're smothered in SPF 30+ sunscreen. I'm not taking any chances with their health. After all I've been through, I do have a confession to make. I'm still addicted to tanning. This time though, I get my glow from a bottle. Fake is the only way to stay safe.

Sunbeds: The facts

  • Research shows solariums increase your risk of skin cancer.
  • Education campaigns about the dangers of UV rays have led to a decline in sunburn rates. But even though solariums produce highly concentrated doses of UV radiation - up to three times the strength of the midday summer sun - many Aussies mistakenly believe these devices are 'safe'.
  • Each year in Australia, 281 cases of melanoma, 43 melanoma-related deaths and 2572 new cases of squamous cell carcinoma are estimated to be caused by solarium use.
  • The NSW goverment has passed a law that bans solariums in the state from 2014. The new law has sparked calls for other states to follow their lead.
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