By Lisa Pace, Special to Everyday Health
I am a former tan-oholic. I won’t say “recovering” because I have no desire to visit a tanning salonever again. I have no wish to smell the odor of my skin being destroyed. Anyone who has been to a tanning salon knows that distinctive smell well. I certainly know it too well.
The fact is that indoor tanning has caused me to develop more than 81 skin cancers, five of them melanoma. I have untold scars on my body from the procedures to remove those cancers, and I know I will face this for years to come.
I started hitting the tanning salon while I was in college. I felt that if I had a tan, other people wouldn’t notice how pale and white I was. I felt prettier and my skin was more even.
In the beginning, I went to the tanning salon roughly once a week. Then I started going twice a week, and then every day. I was addicted. There was always a reason or excuse to tan: spring break, weddings, dates … you get the picture. Everybody I knew was doing it, and I wanted to be part of it, too. Tanning made me feel good.
In the beginning, I could just walk in without an appointment. Then, the salon got so busy you had to make appointments, which frustrated me. Eventually, the salon started staying open later so my friends and I could go after night classes. I was tanning even when the sun wasn’t shining! No one could tell me not to tan. I wouldn’t have listened anyway.
The Call From the Dermatologist: ‘This May Be Melanoma’
After graduate school, I got my first “real” job coaching women’s basketball. My mom told me, “You’ve got a job; go see all these doctors and get a baseline on your health.” She was pretty insistent, and I was trying to be a grown-up so I went. One of the doctors was a dermatologist. He found a couple of spots on my leg and told me they were probably nothing but that he wanted to biopsy them.
I was in Las Vegas on a recruiting trip when I got a call from the dermatologist telling me to come back in. The spots were skin cancers, he said. That didn’t scare me. I figured they’d scrape it off, put a bandage on it, and I’d be fine. But then he became more insistent and said, “We think these may be melanoma.” Melanoma, of course, is the deadliest form of skin cancer. Instead of leaping into action, I put it off and said I’d call them back. I went about my business. I even rented a convertible to tool around sunny Vegas! I just didn’t know. I wasn’t educated back then.
Eventually, I did go back to see the doctor and that was just the beginning of my cancer surgeries. I had those spots taken off and a fewbasal cell carcinomas removed after that. Then there was one on my face, so they took a chunk out of my cheek. That’s when I realized, “This is not a joke. This is real life.”
Paying the Tanning Price
The thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that it doesn’t happen right away; the cancers develop over time — months and years after sun exposure. I once went six months without any new diagnoses. Then, two months later there were more, and I said, “Are you kidding me? We didn’t see these last week!”
You pay the price. As you get older, you pay the price.
At least I have a little bit of an excuse. The dangers of indoor tanning just weren’t known when I was in college, or at least not nearly as much as today. Now, some states are banning indoor tanning for people younger than 18. I was older than that when I started, but maybe — just maybe — I would have thought about what I might be doing to myself if there had been bans in place back then.
My first cancers were found in 2000. Since then I’ve had dozens more surgeries, and I’m fairly certain that I have more in my future. I’m lucky my mother was persistent. She saved my life.
Stop Tanning While You Still Have Time
For the past three or so years, Arielle Kauvar, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University
Medical Center in New York City (pictured, right), has been my skin cancer doctor. She’s done more than 30 of my surgeries and still counting, unfortunately. She is getting the word out about the dangers of indoor tanning, and I am trying to help. She wants people to start equating warnings about cancer and indoor tanning to those about cigarettes and lung cancer. She points out that in Brazil and Australia, indoor tanning is banned for everyone — not just minors. That’s where we want to be.
I want to be the face of the anti-indoor tanning movement. I’m excited to tell my story, hoping if people hear it, I can prevent others from having the same experience.
Unfortunately, in many cases, it takes something bad happening for you to wake up. I hope my story can be that wake-up call for someone else — that I can touch just one person so he or she doesn’t have to go through this.
I work with young people and know that they are at a time in their lives when all they want to do is to fit in. But I want people to understand that they’re beautiful to the people who matter most, without a tan. That tan isn’t going to make you who you are. That is on the inside. That’s what makes you beautiful.
Lisa Pace is a licensed massage therapist and former basketball coach. She has coached Division I basketball at Long Island University Brooklyn, Georgia State University, Southeast Missouri State, and her alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University.
Photo, top: Lisa Pace
Photo, middle right and bottom right: Arielle Kauvar, MD