"I was tanning three to four times a week," said Neale of Belleville, Ont., who turned 22 on Thursday. "It made me feel better about myself, and people were always complimenting me, saying, 'Oh you have such a nice tan.'"
Once she started toasting her body under the ultraviolet lights of the tanning beds, as many of her friends did, "it quickly became an addiction for me.... People thought that tanning made them look skinnier. They actually call it 'tanorexia.'"
Five years later, what she thought was a freckle above her belly button was diagnosed as malignant melanoma, a potentially deadly skin cancer that is on the rise in Canada and elsewhere, especially among young women.
Neale hasn't been near a tanning salon since. And she is telling her story as a warning to teens and other young adults not to be seduced by the lure of sunlamp-burnished skin for the sake of vanity.
On Thursday, Neale was among about 90 volunteers for the Canadian Cancer Society attending events at the Ontario legislature, where a private member's bill was introduced calling for a ban on indoor tanning for anyone under 18.
The proposed Skin Cancer Prevention act by Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas, the NDP's health critic, also seeks regulation of the industry. If passed, the bill would require indoor tanning salons to adhere to strict marketing and promotion practices aimed at young clients, including posted health warnings and training for staff who operate the equipment.
"Tanning salons directly target youth through advertising in yearbooks and in schools before prom and graduation," Gelinas said in a release. "Not only do the salons either not know or play down the lifelong consequences of excess exposure to UV rays, they make tanning accessible and attractive for young people."
Thursday's tabling of the bill marks the third time Gelinas has put forth prospective legislation aimed at keeping young teens from taking up artificial tanning — and the MPP is hoping she'll be third-time lucky.
Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said the government will look closely at issue.
"There's no question that young people should not be using tanning beds, maybe older people as well," Matthews told The Canadian Press. "The question is whether we legislate that or whether it's done through education so that parents have the information they need, kids get the information they need."
Nova Scotia banned indoor tanning for those under 19 in 2010, and British Columbia will be implementing a similar law governing under-18s later this year. Several countries, including France, the U.K. and Australia, have restrictions for youth.
Several health advocacy organizations, including the Canadian Cancer Society and the Ontario Medical Association, are backing Gelinas in her efforts to get her bill turned into law.
"This legislation for us is really a no-brainer," said Joanne Di Nardo, senior manager of public issues at the Canadian Cancer Society's Ontario division.
"It protects kids. It responds to the research that shows there's an increased risk — a 75 per cent increased risk for those under 35 — for melanoma from exposure to indoor tanning equipment."
Di Nardo said voluntary industry guidelines put forth by Health Canada have been around for years, but they don't work.
"Kids are still accessing (tanning beds) before special occasions like proms and vacations," she said, noting that salons often offer discounts to young people before prom season and March break.
A 2008 society-sponsored audit of indoor tanning salons in Toronto found a "huge lack of compliance" with voluntary guidelines. Di Nardo said researchers found 99 per cent of facilities did not advise against tanning for those with fair skin, and 60 per cent didn't ask the age of researchers who were obviously minors.
An online Ipsos Reid poll of almost 1,500 Ontario students aged 12 to 17, conducted this month for the society, found 21 per cent of those in Grade 12 and 11 per cent in Grade 11 used tanning beds. Overall, eight per cent of young Ontarians are using the devices, up from five per cent in 2006.
"Parents are often the first to introduce their kids to tanning, and they're often the ones to pay for it until the young person is able to pay for it themselves," said Di Nardo, adding that the poll found the latter was the case for 52 per cent of respondents.
For most, appearance was the motivation — 61 per cent said they look better with a tan — and many said they chose to use tanning beds because their friends do it.
"I think people are not understanding how dangerous it is to use that method," Di Nardo said.
And dangerous it definitely is, confirmed Dr. Cheryl Rosen, head of dermatology at Toronto Western Hospital.
"Going to a tanning parlour greatly increases your risk of melanoma," as well as other disfiguring skin cancers, said Rosen, director of the Canadian Dermatology Association's national sun awareness program.
Exposure of the skin, especially repeated exposure, to both UVA and UVB rays delivered by artificial tanning lights can damage the DNA, leading to mutations that cause melanoma and other skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.
The World Health Organization has declared both kinds of ultraviolet radiation as Class 1 cancer-causing agents — the same carcinogenic rating given to tobacco and asbestos, she said.
If caught early, melanoma has a cure rate of more than 90 per cent, Rosen said.
"However, once it goes beyond the skin or once it's thick within the skin, it has a very high chance of spreading and there are really no good treatments for it once it's spread."
Last year, an estimated 5,500 Canadians were diagnosed with melanoma and about 950 were expected to die from the disease. More than 74,000 were told they had other types of skin cancer.
Sadly, Rosen said many teenagers and young adults have the notion they are somehow immune and invincible, so trying to get the message to sink in about the dangers of cancer from indoor tanning — or by baking under the sun — can be frustrating.
"It's hard. And I think part of it is going through peers. That might be the way to reach them."
That's what Neale hopes to do.
The 15-centimetre scar on her stomach where surgeons excised the "freckle" and a swath of surrounding tissue, as well as the 25 stitches on one breast where a biopsy was performed — one of eight on her body in the last year — are reminders she is not free of the threat of melanoma.
Having had the skin cancer once, and because of repeated and prolonged UV exposure from indoor tanning, Neale now has a 90 per cent chance of the disease recurring.
"A lot of people aren't going to listen to their parents, they're not going to listen to the media, they're going to do whatever they want," said Neale, who worked for more than two years at a tanning salon and feels "horrible that I encouraged people to tan."
"So I just hope that by me being able to tell my story, maybe they'll listen to me, because it happened so fast for me.... It's the deadliest kind of (skin) cancer, but it's also one of the most preventable."