If Lisa Pace could go back and tell her 17-year-old-self anything about life, it would be that skin cancer is avoidable. After turning to tanning beds as a way to transform her pale, freckled skin as a teenager, the now-44-year-old has had 86 skin cancer surgeries.
Now, she’s sharing her story in hopes that it will serve as a cautionary tale for other young girls who are believing the lie that there is beauty in being tan.
“Don’t get in that tanning bed. Wear sunscreen. Wear protective clothing. People are going to love you for what you look like on the inside, not on the outside.”
Lisa says she started tanning in high school because a friend had a tanning bed in her home. But the real “addiction” started when she got to college.
As a basketball player for Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Lisa was often filmed or photographed while on the court.
“I’ve always been self-conscious of being light skinned with freckles and red hair,” she explained, adding that her self-esteem only suffered more as a result of seeing herself in the media. So, she bought a tanning package at the local salon and suddenly, things changed.
“It was addictive,” she said. “People would say, ‘You look so good, you look tan,’ and it just encouraged me.” Lisa was tanning “every day, or every other day.”
Lisa’s first run-in with skin cancer came in 2000.
She was 24-years old and went in for a dermatology appointment. During this visit, the doctor biopsied several spots on her leg, and found them to be melanoma — the deadliest kind of skin cancer.
Despite the doctor’s urgency and concern for removing the melanoma right away, Lisa was less than worried.
“I blew it off for weeks,” she admitted. “They kept calling me and eventually, they said: ‘You need to get in here now.'”
When she finally had her first surgery, doctors removed melanomas from her upper and lower leg. She relied on crutches to walk while she recovered, but the scare wasn’t enough to keep her out of the tanning beds. Within a few months, she was back at it.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, using an indoor tanning bed before the age of 35 increases melanoma risk by 59% (and that risk increases with more frequent use). Even just one visit to a tanning bad can increase a user’s risk of developing skin cancer.
Less than a year after her first surgery, Lisa had to have another skin cancer removed—this time from her face.
“It was gut wrenching and heartbreaking,” she said. “This whole time I had been worried about how I looked, and now I have a huge scar on my face.”
It was the wake up call Lisa needed to make a change. She knew it was time to start taking better care of her skin. And in order to avoid causing more damage, she gave up the tanning beds for good.
Unfortunately, those lifestyle changes didn’t make up for the damage she’d already done. By the time Lisa was in her mid-30’s, she had undergone 50 surgeries to remove cancer from places all over her body.
“By this point, I started finding the spots myself … I had a high success rate of spotting them, I’d get it right about eight out of 10 times,” Lisa said. “They were all over my arms, legs, back, chest, face and my nose.”
At one point, she was having a skin cancer surgery once every three months.
Today, at 44-years old, Lisa has had a total of 86 surgeries. She’s more intentional than ever before about taking care of her skin.
“Sunscreen is part of my daily routine, I won’t go outside without it,” she said, adding that she applies it all over her body as soon as she gets out of the shower, and reapplies it through out the day. Lisa says she doesn’t go anywhere without sunscreen these days, and always has a bottle in her car or purse.
She also limits her exposure to the sun in other ways like, wearing long sleeves and a hat when she’s outside, and being mindful of how much time she spends outdoors.
Lisa hopes her experiences will serve as a warning to young women about just how preventable skin cancer is. She also wants girls to know that being tan is not the answer to beauty.
“I would much rather be pale, white, covered in freckles than to have all of the scars that I have,” she says.