Woman shares selfies showing painful-looking battle with skin cancer

A 27-year-old woman hopes the graphic photos of her painful-looking treatment of skin cancer will be a lesson for others working on their summer tan.

"If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go!" wrote Tawny Willoughby in a Facebook post. "Don't let tanning prevent you from seeing your children grow up."

Willoughby, now a 27-year-old mother, received the terrifying diagnosis at age 21, she wrote. She said she averaged 4-5 trips a week to the tanning bed in high school.

Though she's thankful to have never experienced melanoma, she's had plenty of other kinds of cancer, she explained. She has battled with squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, both types of skin cancer that can cause disfiguration. The disfiguration in the photo is from the treatment for these types of cancer, called Aldara, she wrote.

"I go to the dermatologist every 6-12 months and usually have a skin cancer removed at each checkup," she wrote.

Willoughby hopes her post -- now viral with tens of thousands of shares -- will demonstrate the dangers of too much tanning and promote safe skin care. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Dr. Deborah Sarnoff, Senior Vice President of The Skin Cancer Foundation, said that Willoughby's photo is an example to exercise caution with tanning.

"Tawny Willoughby's jarring image is a harsh reminder that there is no such thing as a safe tan," she told ABC. "Those who begin tanning before age 35 increase their risk of developing melanoma by almost 75 percent. In addition, just one indoor UV tanning session increases users' risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent and basal cell carcinoma by 29 percent."

ABC News spoke with dermatologists who had mixed feelings about Willoughby's message. Some supported her while others, like Dr. Neil Korman, worried it would deter people from seeking treatment. She appears to have taken the photo on the worst day of the treatment, he said.

"It's a standard therapy we use relatively routinely," Korman said. "Often, it doesn't feel anywhere near as bad as it looks."

The Skin Cancer Foundation released advice to keep in mind, especially as summer approaches.

  • Seek the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

  • Do not burn.

  • Avoid tanning and never use UV tanning beds.

  • Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.

  • Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

  • Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.

  • Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of six months.

  • Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.

  • See your physician every year for a professional skin exam.
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