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.
“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.
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.
“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.”