A sunbed addict whose tanning habit started when he was 16, and saw him lying under UV lights for well over an hour every week, is now campaigning for caution after a bleeding mole that appeared on his body resulted in a life-changing cancer diagnosis at the age of 21.
Jak Howell, now 23, from Swansea, makes TikTok videos about his experience of melanoma, a type of skin cancer often caused by too much sun exposure, after he was using sunbeds five times a week by the age of 18.
Tanning for 18 minutes at a time, Jak said he played down his sunbed addiction to his mum after she voiced concern about it.
In April 2021 he noticed an aggravated mole that later started to bleed, which doctors told him was cancerous.
Jak faced radiotherapy and then surgery to remove the lump, as well as lymph nodes from his groin – but when the operation failed to cure the issue he endured a year of immunotherapy treatment and spent Christmas 2021 in a hospital bed.
Now in remission after receiving the all clear in December 2022, Jak is working with charities including Cancer Research UK to raise awareness and push for greater regulation to prevent children from using sunbeds.
Jak said: “I never knew how dangerous sunbeds were, I just thought I was invincible as a teenager.
“I wanted to share my story in the 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 sunbed since my diagnosis, I only use fake tan now.”
Jak first started tanning on sunbeds at 16, to fit in with friends.
He said: “I’d finished school and just started college, and a lot of the people I was hanging around with were using sunbeds.
“I was just trying to fit into what I thought was normality back then.”
At first he would tan twice a week but by the age of 18 he was using sunbeds five times a week, for 18 minutes at a time.
Hiding how often he was using them, Jak said his mum was concerned about his sunbed use.
He said: “She was definitely worried, but she didn’t know how bad it’d got.
“The first shop I used to go to didn’t even have a receptionist, you just paid a machine like a parking meter.
“I didn’t know how dangerous sunbeds were and as a teenager, I just thought I was invincible.”
In April 2021 Jak noticed 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 realised it was bleeding.
He said: “I went running to my mum and I could tell by the look on her face that she was really worried.”
He sent a photo of the mole to his doctor, who urged him to go immediately to hospital 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 sat by myself when the doctor rang to tell me I had cancer. Even though I’d been worried, I still wasn’t prepared for how serious it was,” he said.
“I was just speechless, I didn’t know what to say. Everything went silent, my palms were soaking with sweat. I thought I was going to die.
“Afterwards, I rang my mum who rushed home from work.”
Between May and September Jak had different treatments, including two rounds of radiotherapy, but said that nothing was working for him.
In September 2021 doctors found that Jak’s cancer had spread from his back to his groin, without him having any symptoms to suggest this.
That same month he had surgery to remove the cancer as well as lymph nodes in his groin.
Jak said the recovery was “hell” and two weeks after the operation he was scanned.
He was dealt a blow – the surgery had been unsuccessful.
“The surgery hadn’t worked, the cancer was still there and it was back with a vengeance,” Jak said.
“I was told I’d need further treatment and that it was my last option to fight it, 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 round of treatment every six weeks until Christmas 2022.
“The first two rounds of immunotherapy were hell, it was a big shock to my body. It improved after that, but my body has changed – I’m breathless a lot and my tastebuds have changed. I was nauseous and fatigued,” he said.
“But I hate the thought of something controlling me and dictating my life, so I just tried my hardest to continue to be the person I always was, even though it was difficult at times.”
In December 2022, Jak finally received the all-clear 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 has received comments on TikTok videos from other sunbed users.
He said: “I hope my story can be a warning to other people, I don’t think enough people realise how dangerous sunbeds are.
“You need ID to buy an energy drink in a supermarket, but I’ve seen kids being able to use sunbeds no problem.
“I use fake tan now instead because I don’t want to go through another diagnosis.
“I work with a lot of charities now and I’m just trying to raise as much awareness as I can.”
Jak is supporting Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life 2023, in partnership with Standard Life, which is in its 30th year – for more information, visit raceforlife.org.