Wigan mum warns of dangers of sun beds after losing her ear to cancer

A mum-of-two who loved topping up her golden tan has urged people to stay away from sun beds after being diagnosed with cancer and losing her ear.
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Anthea Smith, from Winstanley, regularly used sun beds for decades, starting when she was just 14 years old.

But now she wishes she had never started, as she has been diagnosed with melanoma and had to have her ear amputated.

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July will mark five years since Anthea was diagnosed with melanoma, which is a type of skin cancer, but she had symptoms for quite some time before that.

Anthea Smith had her ear amputatedAnthea Smith had her ear amputated
Anthea Smith had her ear amputated

“I had in my left ear what looked like a little, tiny pea-sized lump, like a little pearl. It had been there for five years,” she said.

“I went to my doctor when it first became noticeable, because it was itchy, and my doctor said it was a wart and nothing to worry about.

“It grew and continued to itch. My hairdresser told me to get it checked as well. I went back to the doctor a number of times and they said the same thing. I had a lot of faith in that GP at the time.”

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At Anthea’s insistence, the doctor eventually referred her to a dermatologist in September 2014 and it took six months for her to get an appointment.

She was again told she had a wart and they mainly looked at a lesion on her leg instead.

“I thought that was okay, two medical professionals had looked at it,” she said.

She was referred to a plastic surgeon for treatment to her leg and alarm bells started to ring when he immediately started asking questions about the lump on her ear, any family history of cancer and whether she had ever used a sun bed.

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She was told she could have basal cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, and may need to have the tip of her ear removed.

Anthea under went a biopsy a week later and when the results came back, she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and told she would need to have her left ear amputated.

Surgery was carried out on August 5, 2015 to remove her left ear and tragus.

However, a month later, a scan showed the cancer had spread and the operation had not removed it all.

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Anthea had another operation on November 5, 2015, this time to remove her inner ear, middle ear, temporal bone, lymph nodes and saliva glands. Skin was removed from her leg to replace some of what was taken.

She woke up in the intensive care unit in a lot of pain and with permanent tinnitus.

Anthea’s recovery then began, which included learning how to sit and stand because her balance had become so poor.

She began 32 sessions of radiotherapy at Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in Birkenhead in January 2016, which she described as “brutal”.

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From the first treatment she lost her sense of taste, had permanent dry mouth because saliva glands had been removed and her neck and throat blistered.

More than four years later, Anthea is still alive but will never be able to forget her battle with cancer.

She is totally deaf on the left-hand side and has “permanent screaming tinnitus”. She has no sense of taste or sense of touch on her left-hand side and has mild facial palsy, so struggles to pronounce some words. Her balance is poor and she feels overwhelmed by sounds in a loud environment.

Anthea, 44, said: “It’s a massive price to pay, but it is a small price to pay to be alive. I wasn’t expected to be alive and that was hard to hear. It’s a conversation you never want to have with your children.”

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Anthea continues to have regular appointments with a host of doctors and has to wear factor 50 sun cream every day and special clothes with UV protection.

Anthea, who works for Bolton Council, says she has had a lot of support, from her medical teams, charity Melanoma UK and her friends and family.

But she is aware that she could become ill again.

She said: “My five-year survival will be classed from the date my treatment ended, so in February next year it would be classed as no evidence of active disease.

“Melanoma isn’t like many other cancers, it does stay in the body and can reactivate. It’s scary because it was all caused by the desire to have a tan.”

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Now Anthea is an ambassador for Melanoma UK and is sharing her story in a bid to stop other people following in her footsteps.

Now she wants sun beds to be banned to prevent more people developing cancer or at least for health warnings to be given, like those on packs of cigarettes.

Anthea decided to speak out after seeing photographs of people flocking to tanning salons in Wigan earlier this month, when they briefly reopened after the coronavirus lockdown, before being told they should remain closed.

People need to realise that skin cancer doesn’t just get cut out and it’s gone, or it won’t happen to them. It does happen and the effect is deadly.

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“There is a safe way to get a tan and that’s out of a bottle or spray tans. Be comfortable with who you are and respect your skin. You only get one life and you need to respect that,” she said.

Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK. Caught early enough, it is one of the most curable cancers, but advanced melanoma is difficult to treat.

The World Health Organisation classes sun beds as carcinogenic. Adverse health effects associated with sun bed use include cancer, sunburns, accelerated skin ageing, eye inflammation and transient immunosuppression.

Gillian Nuttall, CEO of Melanoma UK, said: “Melanoma risk increases with younger age of first sun bed use and with greater lifetime use of sun beds. A systematic review showed that people who have used a sun bed at least once at any stage in their life have a 20 per cent higher risk of developing melanoma than people who have never used a sun bed, and the first use of sunbeds before the age of 35 increases the risk of developing melanoma by 59 per cent.

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“Why would anyone think it was okay to take these risks? The reason for that is because the sun bed industry strenuously deny there is any causal link between the use of sun beds and melanoma. Yet, the first question a medic will ask a patient presenting with any kind of skin lesion is ‘have you used sun beds?’ We have to get our youngsters off these machines and encourage them to fake tan. They are banned in Australia, it is high time we banned them in the UK.”

A petition by Melanoma UK calling for sunbeds to be banned can be found at www.change.org/p/uk-government-a-total-ban-on-the-use-of-commercial-sunbeds-in-the-uk.

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