Real Life

Dying to be tanned

Basking in the heat of the sunbed, Vanessa Palermo sighed with bliss at the thought of being tanned.

Using sunbeds three times a week was a luxury the 34-year-old treated herself to for a year in her twenties. At the time they were considered a safer option than baking in the sun, but today the North Shore mum is paying the ultimate price for her quest to get the perfect tan.

After being diagnosed with melanoma and seeing her biological father die from the disease, Vanessa will always regret those hours spent on a sunbed. Last year a report by the World Health organisation showed there was a 75% increase in the risk of developing melanoma for those who began using a sunbed in their teens or early twenties.

Born with fair hair and blue eyes, Vanessa was always in the high-risk group for getting melanoma and had a family history, with her father dying of the disease six years ago.

Plus, Vanessa was a beach lover and going to the beach two or three times a week was the norm when her daughter Bonnie (14) was little.

While she protected Bonnie with a high factor sunscreen and a hat, Vanessa wasn’t vigilant about how regularly she applied her own sunscreen or covered up properly. Her care for Bonnie was in stark contrast to her own childhood, when family friends once put baby oil on her back in the sun, leading to painful burns and a massive blister.

A year after her father’s death, Vanessa noticed a tiny black spot on her back in the mirror while getting into the shower. She saw a skin specialist who immediately confirmed the 0.72mm spot was melanoma.

“I just wanted it out then and there but they reassured me it would be okay to wait until it could be done properly,” she says.

Less than two weeks later, the spot was removed, and another few weeks after that more skin was taken off to help prevent it returning. But despite this, there’s a high chance she could get another melanoma.

The family history is so strong, the eldest of her three half-sisters has also had three melanomas removed, and Bonnie has a 75% risk of getting it too.

“The more people in the family with it, the higher your chance of getting it,” she says.Vanessa’s been told her melanoma will definitely come back at some stage.

Being so fair, when Vanessa first starting using sunbeds she was only allowed to have 10-minute sessions, and gradually built up to 30-minute doses that cost just $10 at her local hair salon.

“I liked being brown and sunbeds felt awesome. I thought they were safer, so why wouldn’t you switch? Now we’re told they’re dangerous.

“If I’d known that my real dad, Steven (48), would die of melanoma and that we had such a strong family history, I would have thought twice before using a sunbed and would have taken more care at the beach.”

Last month, Consumer NZ carried out a survey on 69 sunbed outlets across New Zealand and found only seven met the voluntary safety codes.

Vanessa quit using them after a year once she achieved the colour she had hoped for. But now, after her health scare, Vanessa thinks twice about even going outdoors.

This summer she’s limiting herself to small doses of sunshine, while obsessively applying sunblock.

“I buy face moisturisers with UV products in them. I never expose my back and I always swim covered up.”To raise awareness about the disease, Vanessa’s scar was featured in the oelanoma Foundation book, Scar: A Mark of Hope, and prays that her story in the Weekly will stop people from using sunbeds and encourage them to cover up.

Vanessa feels helpless watching her own daughter lap up the sun’s rays for a tan, even though she knows the risks.

“I don’t want to be pale, so I do go out in the sun and get burnt,” Bonnie admits.

Vanessa adds, “There needs to be a huge campaign aimed to get teenagers to put sunblock on, because they don’t do it.

“There should be laws to limit the use of sunbeds to people over the age of 18. They also need to make self-tanning lotion cheaper so kids will stop using the sun to tan.”

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