Frequent tanner shares shocking skin-cancer selfie as warning of tanning bed dangers

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Tawny Willoughby used a tanning bed 4 to 5 times a week in high school. Now, at 27, she’s dealing with painful skin-cancer treatments. This selfie of Willoughby, posted last month to Facebook, has been shared almost 50,000 times. (Courtesy Tawny Willoughby)

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tawny Willoughby grew up in small-town Kentucky, where she said it was normal to use a tanning bed four or five times a week.

“I had my own personal tanning bed in my home and so did a lot of my friends growing up … everyone tanned,” Willoughby told CNN. “I didn’t really even think about the future or skin cancer at the time.”

After one of her classmates in nursing school was diagnosed with melanoma, Willoughby made her first dermatology appointment at age 21. Sure enough, she had skin cancer.

Now 27, Willoughby says she has had basal cell carcinoma five times and squamous cell carcinoma once. She goes to the dermatologist every six to 12 months and usually has a cancerous piece of skin removed at each checkup.

She’s also become a cautionary tale about the hazards of tanning beds, thanks to a selfie she posted last month on Facebook. The grisly image, taken after one of her cancer treatments, shows her face covered with bloody scabs and blisters. It’s since been shared almost 50,000 times.

Courtesy Tawny Willoughby

“If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go! This is what skin cancer treatment can look like,” she wrote in a post along with the photo. “Wear sunscreen and get a spray tan. You only get one skin and you should take care of it.”

One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Exposure to tanning beds increases the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, said the AAD, which reports that more than 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year are linked to indoor tanning.

Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second-most common form of cancer for adolescents and young adults 15-29 years old, according to the AAD. Warning signs include changes in size, shape or color of a mole or other lesion, the appearance of a new growth on the skin or a sore that doesn’t heal.

Courtesy Tawny Willoughby

Risk factors for all types of skin cancer include skin that burns easily, blond or red hair and a history of excessive sun exposure, including sunburns and tanning-bed use — dangers that the blonde, blue-eyed Willoughby now knows all too well.

Willoughby, who now lives in northern Alabama and works as a registered nurse, told CNN she never expected the Facebook picture of her damaged face to go viral.

But she’s excited to think her story might save someone else’s life.

“I’ve lost count of how many people shared it now and told me I’ve helped them,” she said. “It’s really cool to hear people say they won’t tan anymore. I’ve had mothers thank me after sharing my pictures with their daughters. People in my hometown said they are selling their tanning beds.

Courtesy Tawny Willoughby

“I never thought about the future when I was in high school — I just tanned because it was normal to me.”

Willoughby knows she’ll deal with the consequences of tanning for the rest of her life. She’s at high risk for developing melanoma but is now doing everything she can — including regular check-ups — to ensure she’s around for her husband, Cody, and their young son, Kayden, for years to come.

“Learn from other people’s mistakes,” she wrote on Facebook. “Don’t let tanning prevent you from seeing your children grow up. That’s my biggest fear now that I have a two-year-old little boy of my own.”


  • bob

    The BEST CASE scenario of tanning is that your skin will age prematurely and, by 40, you’ll look like wrinkled, dried-up old leather saddlebag.

    That’s if you’re LUCKY.

    UV will kill you. Don’t let the tanning salon peddlers tell you that their UV is “safe.” It is not.

    I’ve watched melanoma kill several people, including my young sister-in-law just last year. It’s an unspeakably hideous way to die. The sun is not your friend, but at least the sun isn’t deliberately trying to sell you death. Tanning salons that use UV tanning beds are as evil as smoke shops. And will actually kill you quicker.

  • Dr. Dale

    Dr. Dale says:
    It is always good to deal with facts. Let’s not take the facts to mislead people which could lead them into making a wrong decision based on their personal lifestyle.

    Let’s look at some facts: 1) sun burn and over exposure to harmful UVB rays , in many instances leads to 2 of the most common types of skin cancer; basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma Both are generally discovered later in life and are believed to be caused by damaging sun exposure from at least 10 years prior. These skin cancers need attention and are usually burned off superficially but are not considered life threatening.
    2) Over exposure to UVA rays can lead to pre mature aging of the skin.
    3) Melanoma, a very deadly form of skin
    cancer until recently, has never had any link to sun exposure. The most common sites being in the hairline, between toes, in the groin area. These are places that in most cases have never had any sun exposure.

    Let’s move on. What we need to ask ourselves is this:

    Am I one of those people who (like millions in this country) will spend a week or two a year at the beach, on a cruise, or generally enjoying the out doors during the spring and summer months? Do I find the unexposed areas of my skin lighter than the sun exposed areas?

    If you answered yes… on.

    Since over exposure to UV light (burning) IS a proven fact to increase basal and squamous cell (non life threatening) types of skin cancer how do you best protect yourselves ?

    Stay out of the sun completely, never go to the beach, cover yourself with sunscreen and do not participate in out door activities. That’s a good alternative , but does it fit your lifestyle?

    What if you are one of the millions who lays on the beach for hours, who plays outdoor sports or enjoys spending a day at the lake ?What if you are accustomed to burning then peeling until you have a base tan for your protection? For those of us who find this description familiar , maybe the answer is to get your “tan” in a controlled invironment. Does the tanning bed have no merit? I think not. Building a tan slowly and without reddenimg is a very legitamit defense for the responsible tanner. It is much smarter to use your bodies natural defense against UV light (a tan), to protect itself from burning Rays that can later lead to skin cancer.

    The medical industry is in an all out war with sunlight. Without sunlight human beings develope vitamin D deficiencies which lead to everything from seasonal depression disorders to rickets. Sunlight is a prescription for psoriasis, weak bones, depression and much more.

    I would like to address the statistics that were used in this article in my next commentary.

    Use common sense when tanning. Make sure you are protected. Have your tan, then enjoy the shade!

    Good luck,
    Dr. Dale

    • bob

      What kind of a “doctor” are you? Your information about melanoma is dangerously inaccurate.

      It is true that it can result from any sort of skin damage. (Bob Marley died of melanoma that resulted from stubbing his toe while playing soccer.) But to suggest that there is no corellation between UV and melanoma is a dangerous piece of misinformation. There is, in fact, a very STRONG corellation. Utah doesn’t have a high rate of melanoma because we have bad luck. We have it because we combine a fair-skinned population with high altitude. Lots of UV exposure. Lots of sunburns, especially as children.

      Furthermore, your dismissal of basal and squamous cell carcinomas as trivial, merely because they are chronic and tend not to result in death, is obnoxious. They lead to serious scarring. The young woman in the picture will NEVER look right again. She will spend her life being “peeled”. The procedure itself is damaging to the skin.

      Skin never forgets, and never forgives. Everything you do to it WILL show up eventually. Even if you are lucky enough to dodge cancer (both the deadly kind and the others) you WILL look prematurely old. You WILL wrinkle and develop age spots and freckles at an earlier age.

      All things in moderation. There are studies that suggest avoiding sun exposure altogether can lead to more internal cancers, due to a lack of Vitamin D, but there is NO advantage to over-exposure.

      Light-skinned Europeans evolved in an environment with little UV exposure, due to the latitude, cool climate and generally low elevation. We are not designed to live in a high altitude desert at a relatively low latitude. We BURN. As a results, we sometimes die.

      This is not a minor issue. Sunburn can kill you. Not today, but if you burn to the point of peeling even ONCE, as a child, statistics show your chances of developing melanoma are substantially increased. It is not a pretty way to die. It’s about as ugly and brutal as it can get.

    • bob

      You contradict yourself. You advice people to “protect themselves while tanning.” Protect themselves from what? ULTRAVIOLET! You tacitly admit it’s dangerous.

      “Sunblock” does not block UV. It reduces the amount that gets through, thus increasing the time that you can safely be in direct sun. But for a pale person in the spring, that “safe” time is a few MINUTES. Strong sunblock cream can increase that to perhaps an hour, at best.

      Furthermore, there is already statistical evidence that sunblock provides little or no protection against skin cancer. Mostly probably because people hugely overestimate its capacity to block UV. It appears to have no effect at all on the risk to melanoma. The high-energy, deep-penetrating UV wavelengths zip right through “sunblock.” That’s the kind that lead to deep skin damage and melanoma.

    • bob

      By the way, “doctor”, melanoma is often first notice in the groin because there are major lymph nodes there, and that’s where the cancer cells tend to gather and form tumors large enough to notice. The primary legion is somewhere else.

      You DID actually attend classes at medical school, right?

      • bob

        “Lesion.” But the cells ARE legion. More so every minute.

        I’ve seen things I can never un-see. Those horrible, bleeding moles crawling through people at tearing them apart from the inside, and sprouting up all over their skin…’s hideous. The funerals are no fun either.

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