A tanning bed addict whose habit of sunbathing started at the age of 16 and saw him lying under UV lamps for more than an hour every week, is now campaigning for caution after a bleeding mole that appeared on his body led to a life-changing cancer diagnosis at the age of 21.
Jak Howell, now 23, from Swansea, makes TikTok videos about his experience with melanoma, a type of skin cancer often caused by too much sun exposure, after using sun loungers five times a week in the age of 18.
Tanning for 18 minutes at a time, Jak said he played down his tanning bed addiction to his mum after she expressed concern about it.
In April 2021, he noticed an aggravated mole which then started bleeding, which doctors told him was cancerous.
Jak underwent radiation therapy and then surgery to remove the lump, along with the lymph nodes in his groin – but when the operation failed to fix the problem, he endured a year of immunotherapy treatment and spent Christmas 2021 in a hospital bed.
Now in remission after being given the green light in December 2022, Jak is working with charities including Cancer Research UK to raise awareness and push for greater regulation to stop children using sun loungers.
Jak said: “I never knew how dangerous tanning beds were, I just thought I was invincible as a teenager.
“I wanted to share my story in hopes it would help other people, and I’ve had comments from others who can relate to what I’ve been through.
“I haven’t been on a tanning bed since my diagnosis, I only use fake tan now.”
Jak started tanning on tanning beds at age 16, to fit in with friends.
He said: “I had just finished school and had just started university, and a lot of people I hung out with were using deck chairs.
“I was just trying to fit into what I thought was normalcy at the time.”
At first he tanned twice a week, but by the age of 18 he was using tanning beds five times a week, for 18 minutes at a time.
Hiding how often he used them, Jak said his mother was concerned about his use of the lounge chairs.
He said: ‘She was definitely worried, but she didn’t know how bad it was.
“The first store I went to didn’t even have a receptionist, you just paid for a machine like a parking meter.
“I had no idea how dangerous tanning beds were and as a teenager I just thought I was invincible.”
In April 2021, Jak noticed that a mole on his lower back had become irritable.
Assuming it was a bug bite, he ignored it, but one day in the shower he realized he was bleeding.
He said: “I ran over to my mum’s house and I could tell by her expression that she was really worried.”
He sent a photo of the mole to his doctor, who urged him to go to the hospital immediately for tests. There the mole was removed and tested.
Jak recalled sitting at the top of his stairs 10 days later when he received a phone call with his results.
“I was sitting alone when the doctor called to tell me I had cancer. Even though I was worried, I was still unprepared for the gravity of the situation,” he said.
“I was just speechless, I didn’t know what to say. Everything was quiet, my palms were drenched in sweat. I thought I was going to die.
“Afterwards, I called my mother who rushed from work.”
Between May and September, Jak underwent different treatments, including two rounds of radiotherapy, but said nothing worked for him.
In September 2021, doctors discovered Jak’s cancer had spread from his back to his groin, with no symptoms to suggest.
That same month, he underwent surgery to remove the cancer along with the lymph nodes in his groin.
Jak said the recovery was “hell” and two weeks after the operation he was scanned.
He received a blow – the operation had failed.
“The surgery hadn’t worked, the cancer was still there and it was back with a vengeance,” Jak said.
“I was told I would need further treatment and that was my last option to fight it off, which was just the worst news.”
Jak started immunotherapy treatment in December 2021.
He spent Christmas in hospital and over the coming year he had a series of treatments every six weeks until Christmas 2022.
“The first two cycles of immunotherapy were hell, it was a big shock to my body. It got better after that, but my body changed – I got very short of breath and my taste buds changed. I was nauseous and tired,” he said.
“But I hate the idea of something controlling me and dictating my life, so I just did my best to continue being the person I always was, even if it was hard at times.”
In December 2022, Jak was finally given the green light and is now in remission. Since his diagnosis, Jak has been raising awareness about sunbeds and sharing his experience on social media, which has now become his full-time job.
He said he received comments on TikTok videos from other tanning bed users.
He said: “I hope my story can be a warning to other people, I don’t think enough people realize how dangerous sunbeds are.
“You need ID to buy an energy drink from a supermarket, but I’ve seen kids being able to use sun loungers with no problem.
“I now use fake tan instead because I don’t want to go through another diagnosis.
“I now work with many charities and just try to raise awareness as much as possible.”
Jak is supporting Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life 2023, in partnership with Standard Life, now in its 30th year – for more information visit raceforlife.org.
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