Woman’s Graphic Skin Cancer Selfie Highlights Dangers of Repeated Tanning

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Tawny Willoughby with her son, before her skin cancer treatment. (Photo: Facebook) 

Kentucky-born Tawny Willoughby used a tanning bed four to five times a week in high school. At age 27, she’s now had basal cell carcinoma five times, and squamous cell carcinoma once.

Now a wife and the mother of a 2-year-old son, Willoughby posted a graphic photo of her skin cancer treatment to Facebook as a way of raising awareness of the issue. “If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go!” she writes. “This is what skin cancer treatment can look like.”

Brace yourself: 

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Tawny Willoughby after using a skin cancer treatment cream called Aldara to clear away her damage. (Photo: Facebook)

Willoughby was first diagnosed with skin cancer at age 21, and now goes to the dermatologist every 6 to 12 months This painful picture, showing bright red scabs and bloodied blisters, has been shared more than 50,000 times as a stunning warning about the dangers of skin cancer. “Melanoma kills, non-melanoma disfigures,” she writes, although her skin seems to be healing and improving again with time.

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A whopping number of people still use tanning beds (about one in three U.S. adults say they’ve used one before, according to 2014 data), despite the fact that they’re known to cause skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer in America. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates there will be 3.5 million new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer diagnosed in two million people in the United States in 2015, and an additional 137,310 new cases of melanoma.

The skin lesions Willoughby had are not uncommon, says Dendy Engelman, MD, a dermatologist at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery. “This is most certainly what can result from the degree of UV exposure this patient had,” she tells Yahoo Health. “I see this type of damage in my Hamptons office, from those patients who have had years of unprotected sun exposure.”

Engelman says it looks as if Willoughby had used a topical cream designed to clear superficial cancerous and precancerous lesions. According to her Facebook post, it was a cream called Aldara (imiquimod).

If you’re like Willoughby and caught a lot of UV exposure in your younger years, you can talk to your dermatologist about these types of topicals, which can turn back the clock a bit. “Medications like imiquimod, 5-fluorouracil, and ingenol can reverse damage induced from prior exposure,” Engelman says. “These cause an inflammatory response that attacks precancerous cells and clears them away. The more damage that exists in the skin, the more inflammation results.”

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It’s possible to have basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) on the face at the same time, or in other places around the body, as well. “Most commonly, BCC and SCC occur on the head and neck — areas of frequent sun exposure,” Engelman says. “Women get melanoma most commonly on the legs, and men get melanoma most commonly on their back.”

The warning signs of skin cancer vary by type, and it’s not always a classic asymmetrical mole. “Melanoma is the most deadly, and it can present as an irregularly shaped brown spot, an asymmetric lesion, a spot with multiple colors, a brown spot that is larger than 6 millimeters in diameter, or a changing mole — growing, bleeding, or changing color.

BCC and SCC typically present differently. “Basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer, and it can have numerous presentations,”says Engelman. “It can range from a pearly, translucent papule to a scaly red patch, or it can also look like a non-healing sore or ulcer. Squamous cell carcinoma can also have many manifestations — from a red, scaly patch to an erosion in the skin that bleeds easily and never heals.”

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The bottom line? Get any suspicious spot or mark checked out by a doctor promptly. “A good rule of thumb is anything new, bleeding or changing should be evaluated by a dermatologist,” Engelman says. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so protect your skin daily and practice good sun safety to keep your skin healthy and cancer-free.”

Willoughby sums it up in her Facebook post: “Wear sunscreen and get a spray tan. You only get one skin and you should take care of it,” she writes. “Learn from other people’s mistakes. Don’t let tanning prevent you from seeing your children grow up.”

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