I used to be obsessed with tanning – then I got skin cancer

Lucia Ferrari
Lucia Ferrari
Lucia Ferrari was diagnosed with skin cancer aged 35 and since dresses as pictured
Since having skin cancer, Ferrari dresses as pictured

Growing up in the Seventies, with every long summer spent in Italy, tanning was very much part of my life. Bronzed skin, along with bikinis and bracelets on the beach in Forte dei Marmi, equalled glamour, and was a far cry from the Brecon Beacons, where the rest of my year was spent. Factor 50 was practically unheard of (or used just by aunts on the beach who developed prickly heat). The rest of us would happily slather ourselves with lowish factor Bergasol or Hawaian Tropic.

My wake-up call came 20 years later, when I was lying on a clinic bed in Harley Street and my dermatologist, Dr Anthony du Vivier, told me I’d better “say a prayer to St Jude” as he removed a mole I was concerned about. I’d noticed that a small shadow had begun to spread around a tiny mole just above my right ankle. After showing my husband, he instantly booked me an appointment the following morning with Dr du Vivier, as my sister-in-law had been diagnosed with a malignant melanoma six months before.

Days later, the results came back with the news that the mole was indeed a malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. It was terrifying, and at the time made worse by the fact that I had just given birth to my daughter. I remember sobbing during night feeds, looking down at her and hoping that I’d still be here for her, and my two-year-old toddler son, in years to come.

Well, thank God I am. Luckily, the cancer had been detected extremely early and it had not spread to anywhere else in my body.

Lucia Ferrari spotted the misshapen mole after giving birth to her daughter
Lucia Ferrari spotted the misshapen mole after giving birth to her daughter - Geoff Pugh

“Moles can change during pregnancy,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr Ophelia Veraitch, “so be vigilant about noticing any changes and showing them to your doctor or dermatologist.”

I felt guilty and foolish. But my carefree attitude to the sun in my youth is not unusual. This week, Cancer Research UK released research that said melanoma skin cancer cases are set to surpass 20,000 for the first time this year. The charity predicts 2024 will see a record 20,800 people diagnosed with melanoma. This increase is largely driven by people of my age and older who took full advantage of the boom in holidays to sunny destinations in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. In fact, the biggest increase in diagnoses is in those aged 80 and over, which is up by 57 per cent in 10 years.

As I discovered, there is no such thing as a safe tan. Dr Veraitch explains:

“Sun damage is cumulative; every bit of sun exposure our skin receives increases our risk for skin cancer.” Although many of us still associate a tan with being healthy, a tan is actually a sign that our skin has been harmed by UV radiation and is trying to defend itself against further UV damage.

Around 90 per cent of all skin cancer is caused by over-exposure to UV radiation from the sun and/or sunbeds. Sunburn, reddening, peeling and even tanning on the skin is an indication of sun damage.

“When UV light hits the surface of the skin it creates free radicals,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr Emma Wedgeworth. “If you accumulate enough free radicals, they start to affect how your DNA replicates.

Eventually the DNA can replicate abnormally and that’s how you get pre-cancerous cells that can, with enough exposure, turn into cancerous cells.”

She adds: “I don’t want people to be over-anxious, thinking that any tan they may get walking around during summer months or on holiday can result in skin cancer. But any intentional sunbathing will absolutely increase your risk of sun damage, which can mean skin cancer for some.”

The incidence of melanoma has risen faster than any other cancer in Britain. One in 36 men and one in 47 women will be diagnosed with melanoma during their lifetime and it is one of the biggest killing cancers in the 15-34-year-old age group. Wearing SPF daily (even during the winter months, as UVA rays are present even on a cloudy day) and especially during the summer months, when there are more UVB rays, can help. Currently only 22 per cent of the UK apply SPF daily, rising to 55 per cent when it’s sunny.

Amy Ford, founder of Hello Sunday SPF, is petitioning to the UK government to remove the VAT on SPF products to make them cheaper and more widely available to all, like in Australia. ‘There is an imminent need for accessible, quality sun protection for all.’ says Ford

Who is at risk of developing skin cancer? I definitely ticked many of the boxes. Fair skin, blue or green eyes, previous use of sunbeds. But I think the scariest warning is that one blistering sunburn as a child or teen can double your risk for developing melanoma in later life.

I was lucky that early detection and diagnosis meant I simply had to visit a plastic surgeon and have more of the surrounding skin removed to check the cancer had not spread, which it had not. I was then monitored every three months by my dermatologist, who would also feel and check my lymph glands. This then extended to checks every six months, then nine months, and finally annual check-ups, which I now do and make sure my teenage children and husband have annual check-ups also.

We still have long summers in Italy, and are very outdoorsy as a family, so I’m grateful for the brilliant SPF formulations we have now (one of my favourite brands, Heliocare, does a SPF 100, but usually I stick to SPF 50).

I wear it every day in London, too. We still go on beach holidays, but, thankfully, in Italy lots come with a private shaded area, which I’m thrilled to be under, with a kaftan, a good book and, depending on the time of day, a cappuccino or a Campari spritz. I never lie in the sun anymore.

I try to be as vigilant as I can about checking my moles and I often find myself back in my dermatologist’s office if I spot anything that looks a bit different.

I still love the look of tanned skin and try many new formulations of self-tan (I love the new Self Glow by James Read, and Tan Luxe, both available from SpaceNK) that give realistic golden glows, not the nutty brown Seventies look I craved. And I love quick spritzes such as By Terry’s Tea to Tan spray, which makes pasty white legs or arms instantly glowing.

I recently had breakfast with my previous magazine editor, and we laughed how our current “tans” are much more sophisticated and flattering now than they were in the Nineties, when we worked together. And safer too. The only “safe” tan is from a bottle.