Regrets? Only that I should have listened

Ellen has had cause to regret her teenage attitude to sun exposure

Ellen has had cause to regret her teenage attitude to sun exposure - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

I WOULD say I’ve had a somewhat “je ne regrette rien” attitude to life so far.

I have taken a few risks and made my fair share of mistakes in my 33 years but I have always rather liked the idea of fate – that everything happens for a reason.

I have seen no point in dwelling on how I could have done things differently, in fact – until now.

This week I had two moles removed – one from my cheek and another from my chest. Both have been sent off to check for signs of skin cancer and in 10 days I should know one way or the other.

My consultant has told me not to worry: that the likelihood is that the blemishes are dysplastic nevus – moles whose appearance is unusual but, while prone to melanoma, usually just need to be monitored closely.

He asked me about my skin-care routine and nodded sagely when I said I religiously applied a moisturiser containing factor 50 UV protection.

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“It’s great that you apply a sunscreen,” he said. “It’s absolutely vital for people with fair hair and freckles to protect their skin.

“But although you are taking care now, a lot of damage to skin happens when a person is younger. This is why you must stay vigilant to any changes.”

As a child, my parents always smothered us in lotion when we were exposed to the sun, but I have to admit I wasn’t as careful as a teenager.

On holidays I rarely wore a hat or sunglasses. I would stay out basking by the pool during the hottest part of the day, avoid the shade entirely and use low-factor creams in the belief that they would help me tan faster.

I also admit to occasionally using sunbeds to maintain my sun-kissed colour when I returned to the UK.

So incredibly foolish, I know. And the worst thing is I can’t even feign ignorance of the risks.

A teenager’s world is paved with warning signs. They are urged not to drink excessively, not to smoke or take drugs, and to take care of their bodies.

Some teens listen and take note but others ignore, unable to imagine a future when they won’t be young and healthy.

When it comes to tanning, a huge number of young people make their decisions based on vanity rather than sanity. I certainly did.

I took the gamble for the fleeting golden glow rather than think about the potential consequences.

It was a month or so ago that I noticed a couple of moles on my body appeared to have changed shape.

One had got larger and a little bit darker, and the other looked a little red and felt itchy.

My GP referred me to the specialist, who examined all the marks on my body to look for abnormalities.

Moles are collections of pigment cells present within the skin. They appear all over the body, but mainly on the back and torso, and are very common – fair-skinned people can have up to 40. Most are a brownish colour, tend to be oval or circular and can alter in number and appearance throughout life.

Researchers have found that the number of moles you have – along with sun exposure – can increase your risk of skin cancer.

There are two main types of skin cancer: malignant melanoma, the most serious, and non-melanoma – more common and easily treated. This type generally develops in areas of skin that have been badly sun-damaged. Malignant melanomas usually develop within an existing mole.

Experts advise checking moles monthly but many of us moley types struggle to know what we’re looking for.

According to doctors, you should seek medical advice if your mole is larger than 4mm diameter, or has got bigger; has changed colour or got darker; has changed shape or become irregular around the border; has risen above the skin surface; bleeds, itches, scales or ulcers.

And don’t be fooled into thinking you are only susceptible to skin damage if you spend time abroad. Despite our miserable weather, skin cancer rates in this country have risen faster than any other form of cancer.

The problem is mainly that in the UK we are still very naïve about the need to protect our skin.

A recent poll by the Teenage Cancer Trust discovered that more than a quarter of 13- to 19-year-olds deliberately get sunburnt in the belief their burn will turn into a tan later.

And yet, according to Cancer Research UK, current statistics show six people a day die from the disease – that’s more than 2,000 a year.

Surely numbers like these should have us taking notice?

I certainly hope my children will learn from my mistakes and take better care of their own skin. I wouldn’t want them to ever experience the worry I am this week as I wait for confirmation that my moles are benign.

In 1960, Edith Piaf famously sang that she had no regrets. Clearly, it was a poignant statement rather than the truth, for she died three years later of liver cancer, having lived many lifetimes’ worth of heartache.

Her last words were: “Every damn fool thing you do in this life, you pay for.”

I just have to hope this isn’t true.

Email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup

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