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A Game She’s Not Ready to Lose

My name is Lisa Pace. I’m a college basketball coach and a licensed massage therapist. I found out I had skin cancer at 23 years old. I had just gotten my first division 1 college coaching job.

I was talking to my mom one night about my job and all the responsibilities, and in conversation she told me now was a good time to see the doctors so they have a baseline of my health moving forward.

So, I made an appointment to a dermatologist. They did a skin check and found a couple places, small light brown spots, that they wanted to biopsy. They did the biopsies and told me they would call and let me know the results. I figured since I had fair skin, red hair, and freckles, this was probably common. I didn’t know. I think at my young age I was trying to rationalize and justify why I had skin cancer. Later on, I found out anyone can get skin cancer.

It was time for recruiting. I couldn’t wait! July was finally here and I got the opportunity to travel from state to state, gym to gym watching young women play basketball. I was headed to Las Vegas. This was a huge tournament. I sat beside the legendary Pat Summitt and watched some games, and went from gym to gym all day. I couldn’t believe this was my job.

Later that night when I returned to the hotel room, I checked my messages. The dermatologist had called and said they had the results. When I spoke to them they said my biopsies came back suspicious, that they were skin cancer, possibly melanoma, and that I needed to come in and let them take more out.

I remember thinking, the last time I was at the dermatologist, it was a little bit of numbing medicine, a small cut, and a band-aid. There is no way I am leaving Las Vegas to go back and let them do that again. I am recruiting. I am watching future division 1 players. It can wait. So I waited. I finished up recruiting in July and made an appointment when I got back home.

This time it was different. I went to a specialist for a second opinion. They went back in the same spots, but took a huge amount out of my leg. It was my right upper thigh and my lower calf. I had stitches, bandages, bleeding, bruising, swelling, and I had crutches. Well, that was definitely different. I knew I would have these crutches for a day or so but as a former athlete, those things had to go. I didn’t have time to be “injured.” But the good thing was, they said they got it all. This meant no more skin cancer, so I thought.

It took a while, but I healed up fine. I continued to coach, and I continued to tan. Tanning beds were popular. I had tanned a lot in college. There were all kinds of promotions with free lotions, buy 5 visits get 5 free, one month unlimited, etc. I enjoyed going. As I got older, I didn’t go as much. However, the damage had been done and those times I was still tanning was just adding to my future surgeries. I had no idea that the tanning bed was causing so much damage to my skin. I never saw any tv commercials warning about tanning bed use and skin cancer, there was no social media platforms warning me of the danger and consequences.  I don’t remember much being said about it at all in the beginning.

One morning I found this white spot on my left cheek. I watched it for a couple weeks and noticed it was getting bigger. So I went back to the dermatologist. This changed my life. They took a huge chunk out of my face. I was devastated. I couldn’t look at myself. I spoke with my doctors and after much discussion, I found out that all those times going to the tanning bed had caused me to have skin cancer. This was the first time anyone had discussed this with me. Remember, this was almost 20 years ago. I had done this to myself. I questioned every time I had ever wanted to go tan. Why did I do this? I didn’t lack self-confidence, I just wanted to have a bronze look and to “fit in.” I knew better than to “follow the crowd.” I was supposed to be a leader, to set examples for others. Now look at me. I was so angry at myself. And this was just the beginning, more and more surgeries would come.

Fortunately for me, I was coaching college athletes and we know we have a choice every day. When we wake up we choose to have a positive or negative mindset. We choose to win the day or wallow in self-pity. We outwork our competition. And skin cancer was my competition.

Fast forward almost 20 years, I have had 86 skin cancer surgeries. My skin cancers have been basal cell, squamous cell, and melanoma. I won’t tell you that I was positive every minute of every day. The mental aspect after surgery can be draining. I did have moments when I didn’t want to get out of bed, when I would look at all my scars and get discouraged.  I dreaded looking in the mirror because I thought I would find a new skin cancer.  But those moments didn’t last long.

I know I’m going to win this battle. I know I do all the right things as far as protecting my skin and getting skin checks so I am confident in knowing skin cancer has met its match. It’s going to be a battle with me.   And I want people to be proud of their own skin. I own my scars now. They have given me wisdom, they motivate me, and they remind me that even though I was knocked down 86 times, I got back up 87 times.

I can only hope my story will inspire someone else to make the necessary changes in their life to protect their skin, to get regular skin checks and to win the day.

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