Ban sunbeds - cancer victim's heartfelt plea

By Martin Johnston

Kathryn Wilson was told she has a 47 per cent chance of being alive in five years. Photo / Alan Gibson
Kathryn Wilson was told she has a 47 per cent chance of being alive in five years. Photo / Alan Gibson

A woman who blames her skin cancer on being burned by a sunbed wants the Government to ban or at least regulate the beauty therapy.

Kathryn Wilson, an executive assistant and mother of children aged 5 and 3, spoke out yesterday in support of a warning letter the Commerce Commission has sent to about 280 sunbed operators and distributors.

But 40-year-old Mrs Wilson, who has been treated for the most deadly form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, wants the Government to gofurther.

"I would love to see sunbeds banned," she says.

The Commerce Commission has put sunbed operators and distributors "on notice" about making misleading claims over the health benefits and risks of sunbed use.

Mrs Wilson, of Tauranga, was diagnosed with melanoma on her back and in lymph nodes under her right arm 18 months ago after finding blood on her bed sheets.

She had not noticed an ulcerated lesion on her back.

She had surgery to remove an 18cm-long, 3cm-wide section of skin and tissue on her back, and the affected lymph nodes.

Her body now has no sign of cancer, but she must have regular checks.

When she was diagnosed, she was told she had a 47 per cent chance of being alive in five years.

She strongly suspects her disease was caused by a sunbed.

"Obviously I can't prove it because I also grew up in the decade of sun-bathing, but about eight years before I got diagnosed, I went to a hairdresser who had a sunbed in the back room.

"They charged me the same amount for five minutes as for 30 minutes. I have to take responsibility for this, I suppose, but I thought, 'If I'm paying the same, I'll take the 30 minutes'."

She used the sunbed for 25 minutes.

"I got severely burned. I was swollen all over my whole body and had blisters everywhere. That took a couple of weeks to recover from fully," said Mrs Wilson, who is fair-skinned and burns easily.

She later complained to the salon.

"Their answer was that they had just changed the lights on the sunbed and that they had told me [before she used the sunbed], so it was up to me to realise that it would be stronger.

"That was the end. I felt it was my fault. I never took it any further."

Despite her 50-50 prognosis, Mrs Wilson feels lucky.

"Some people, when they get diagnosed, only get a very short time. I just feel so lucky that I'm clear at the moment, and that just gives me more time with my kids and family. I feel like I have had a second chance."

In 2009, the World Health Organisation's cancer research agency said that ultraviolet-emitting sunbeds and tanning lamps were, like UV from the sun, a cause of cancer in humans.

It said the risk of developing skin cancer increased by 75 per cent for people who started using a sunbed before the age of 30.

New Zealand has one of the world's highest rates of melanoma. In 2008, 2200 new cases and 317 deaths from the disease were reported.

The Commerce Commission said that after looking into a complaint by the Cancer Society and Consumer NZ about sunbed operators, "there may be a problem of misleading claims".

Misleading the public about goods and services carries penalties including fines of up to $200,000 for companies and $60,000 for individuals.

Victoria has regulated sunbed salons, banning them from admitting people aged under 18 or with very fair skin. Several other Australian states and territories are doing likewise.

New Zealand relies on a voluntary Australasian standard. Consumer NZ surveys have repeatedly found high levels of non-compliance.

Consumer NZ, the Cancer Society and other health groups want the Government to follow the Australian moves to regulate the industry.

Indoor Tanning Association spokesman Matt Adams said banning the industry was a "nonsense idea", because people exposed themselves to higher levels of UV light outside.

He supported regulation, but only if the industry was consulted about it.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said the Ministry of Health was doing surveys with Consumer NZ to check compliance and raise sunbed operators' awareness of the code.

"Clearly, if there's no improvement, we're going to have to look at our options, particularly for people under 18," the minister said.

- NZ Herald

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