When Lisa Pace was a teenager, she was self-conscious of her pale skin and was repeatedly teased about her freckles. Today, when she looks at her 45-year-old body, it's covered with scars from 96 skin cancer surgeries — and she doesn't love looking at them either.
"If I could go back and talk to my 17-year-old self, I would tell (her) that skin cancer is avoidable," Pace stressed. "(I'd say) 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."
Pace started tanning in high school — a friend had a tanning bed in her home. She went a handful of times, but her "addiction" to tanning started when she went to college. Pace played basketball for Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond and was frequently filmed or photographed while on the court. Seeing pictures of herself in the media didn't help with her self-esteem. One thing that did help? A darker complexion. Pace bought a package at the local tanning salon and went regularly.
"I started tanning every day, or every other day," the current Tennessee resident remembered. "It was addictive. People would say, 'You look so good, you look tan,' and it just encouraged me."
Pace was diagnosed with her first skin cancer in 2000. She was in her early 20s and working as a basketball coach at Southeast Missouri State University. Since it was her first full-time job with health insurance, her mom encouraged her to visit all of her doctors to get a baseline of her health.
During a dermatologist appointment, the doctor biopsied a couple of spots on her leg. When they called her back a few days later telling her it was melanoma and she needed to come back to the office as soon as possible, she brushed off their concerns.
"I blew it off for weeks," admitted Pace. "They kept calling me and eventually, they said: 'You need to get in here now.'"
During the first surgery, doctors removed the melanomas from her upper and lower leg. She left the hospital in crutches because she couldn't walk. While it scared her at first, months later, she was back in the tanning beds.
According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., and rates have been rising for the last 30 years. There are three types of skin cancer: melanoma (the deadliest), squamous cell and basal cell. Melanoma is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in young women.
According to recent research from 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. While indoor tanning bed use is on the decline, as of 2015 nearly 8 million adults still tan every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tanning devices deliver UVA rays that are five to 15 times higher than those delivered by the summer sun in the middle of the day. Any dermatologist will tell you there is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan — any change in the color of your skin represents damage and is the body's response to harmful UV radiation.
The turning point
Within a year after her first surgery, Pace needed to have another skin cancer removed. This time, it was from her face.
"It was gut wrenching and heartbreaking. This whole time I had been worried about how I looked, and now I have a huge scar on my face," Pace said. "It was a huge chunk out of my face."
That was when she finally realized she needed to stop tanning and take better care of her skin. Unfortunately, it didn't remedy the damage she had already done. By the time she was in her mid-30s, she had 50 surgeries all over her body.
At one point, she was having skin cancer surgery every three months
"By this point, I started finding the spots myself ... I had a high success rate of spotting them, I'd get it right about 8 out of 10 times," Pace recounted. "They were all over my arms, legs, back, chest, face and my nose."
It was during this time that Pace underwent an additional 25 surgeries, bringing her total up to 76.
"It was hard to find a time to go to the doctor, to get the biopsies and the surgeries. It was stressful ... I was going (to the doctor) nearly every day," Pace said.
"I've never seen anyone with no genetic disorder, who had the number of skin cancers that Lisa had at her age," noted her dermatologist at that time, Dr. Arielle Kauvar, the founding director of New York Laser & Skin Care in New York City. "The most important thing about Lisa's story is that in her case, this was likely a result of indoor tanning."
Today, Pace has had a total of 96 surgeries, 10 in the last year or so, and is now vigilant when it comes to taking care of her skin: "Sunscreen is part of my daily routine, I won't go outside without it," she said. She applies it as soon as she gets out of the shower, all over her body, and reapplies throughout the day. Pace always has a bottle of sunscreen on her, in her purse or her car.
"Everyone has a risk of skin cancer," stressed Kauvar. "All you need is one melanoma to kill you."
If Pace is going to be outside, she'll wear long-sleeve shirts and a hat, and try to limit her time spent outdoors. Today, she's loving the skin she's in, and focusing on the fact that pale is healthy.
"I would much rather be pale, white, covered in freckles than to have all of the scars that I have."
She wants younger girls who think they need to be tan to look good to know this: "You're beautiful to those who matter most without a tan," she said.
This story was updated on May 27, 2021 to include Pace's recent surgeries.