Judy Cloud, 49, spent a lot of time in the sun as a child. The Indianapolis, Indiana, legal assistant grew up playing outside, wearing only SPF 2 or 4. In her 20s, she visited tanning beds about four times a year to get a glow before vacations, too. Despite a family history of skin cancer, Cloud never thought she was at risk. Today, she knows that the time she spent outside without adequate SPF and her tanning bed sessions were dangerous—because she has skin cancer.
When she visited a dermatologist in 1995 to get what she thought was a scab checked out, her long battle with skin cancer began. Skin cancer is an abnormal, uncontrolled growth of skin cells, most often trigged by the ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds. It’s the most common form of cancer, and the Skin Cancer Foundation reports one in five Americans will have skin cancer in their lifetime. According to the foundation, people who use a tanning bed before the age of 35 increase their risk for melanoma—the most dangerous type of skin cancer—by 75 percent. And, shockingly, a study found the number of skin cancer cases caused by indoor tanning is higher than the number of lung cancer cases due to smoking.
To date, the mother of two has had four surgeries to remove spots of basal cell carcinoma, which the Skin Cancer Foundation says is the most common form of skin cancer. It’s caused by long-term sun exposure, and an estimated 2.8 million cases of basal cell carcinoma were diagnosed in the US in 2010. It’s often regarded as the least dangerous type of skin cancer, as it rarely spreads, but it can become life-threatening if left untreated.
Cloud’s latest surgery in September lasted three hours and was her most invasive to date, with doctors removing 23 spots of skin cancer found on her face, chest, arms, and legs. Doctors had to cut into a muscle in her mouth and move a nerve in her head to remove the cancer. She couldn’t move or eat whole foods for two weeks after the surgery, and now, five months later, she still hasn’t regained feeling in her left cheek or from her forehead up to her scalp.
It’s a traumatic experience that Cloud is now bravely sharing with others to help them avoid the same fate. Shortly after her surgery, she posted a public photo album on her Facebook page simply called “Skin Cancer.” In it, she tells her story alongside raw photos of her tough recovery, stitches and scabs freckled across her face and body. Today, the album has been shared more than 63,000 times.
“My 20-year-old self would never share [these pictures] and my 30-year-old self would never share them, but when my doctor said I was going to have another surgery, I said, ‘I’m going to document it this time and post it afterwards,’ ” Cloud tells SELF. “I never thought I would show myself on Facebook without makeup on let alone without makeup on and looking so injured. But, I’m old enough now to know this is needed.”
Since posting the album, Cloud now spends her lunch hour responding to supportive messages. People have thanked her for her story and even shared their own experiences fighting skin cancer or of a loved one who died from the disease. “The best part is when I get messages from people who say, ‘You just changed my mind. I’m never going to a tanning bed again,'” she says. “Those are the ones I really like to see.”
Growing up, Cloud never thought her sporadic tanning bed visits could lead to this. In her Facebook post, she notes that tanning salon packages can be cheap. But the cost billed for her latest surgery was a whopping $26,845.87, which really puts the whole thing into perspective.
Related: 4 Things Men Hide From Their Wives
“I see too many young girls and teenagers who are tanned year round, and I know what they’re doing to their skin,” she says. “I just want people to not think it won’t happen to them. If it does not show up right away, it could show up down the road, and it’s not going to be pretty and it’s not going to be fun. People don’t need to die for a tan.”
In 2009, the World Health Organization ruled that tanning beds are “carcinogenic to humans,” and the dangers of salons have become more widely known. Still, tanning salons are a $3 billion industry in the US. The FDA just proposed a rule this past December to both ban salons from letting minors buy tanning time and require users to sign a risk acknowledgement form. Bloomberg reports 11 states and Washington, D.C. have already taken action and banned minors from indoor tanning.
Cloud predominantly has basal cell carcinoma, but one spot of squamous cell skin cancer was removed in her latest surgery. It’s the next most common form of skin cancer after basal, and more dangerous. Today, she takes as many precautions as she can to keep her skin safe. She wears moisturizer and makeup with SPF, and she avoids extended periods of time in the sun. The scars on her face have healed, but she says the ones on her legs are still bright red, even five months after the surgery.
Still, she feels lucky. She knows for some, skin cancer is even worse if they have a more dangerous type.
“I am lucky, because it’s not melanoma,” she says. “But it could have been. And I don’t want to take the chance of having melanoma. This is a hard enough battle fighting this.”
MORE FROM SELF: