This spring, former tanning bed user Tawny Willoughby posted a graphic selfie to Facebook with her face covered in red sores and scabs. These horrifying marks were side effects of topical treatment she was undergoing for the skin condition actinic keratosis (AK). Crusty lesions caused by too much ultraviolet (UV) exposure from the sun, AKs can lead to skin cancers if left untreated.
While she initially intended to only share this photo with her Facebook friends—to show them the damaging effects of UV—within days it went viral, trending as a top internet news item. Soon, media from around the world were calling, and her story was picked up by dozens of news outlets including CNN, ABC, BuzzFeed, USA Today and Huffington Post.
“It took off really fast,” said Willoughby, 27, mother to a two-year-old son. “I started getting messages from people who took my message to heart. A lot of people told me they stopped tanning and will be wearing sunscreen this summer.”
Willoughby wishes she had learned this message as a teen. Growing up in her small town in Kentucky, her family had a tanning bed at home, which she used two or three times a week. All the popular girls in her high school tanned. And she felt pale next to her two stepsisters, who had naturally olive skin. “Everyone around me was tan,” said Willoughby.
Then, at 21, Willoughby found a small sore on her shoulder that wouldn’t heal. It turned out to be a basal cell carcinoma (BCC). Soon enough, she had four more BCCs and one SCC removed. While not as apt to spread and become deadly as melanoma, these nonmelanoma skin cancers can cause serious disfigurement if not found early, and about two percent of SCC patients die each year.
This spring, when her dermatologist found and began treating her facial AKs, Willoughby chose to share her selfies as a warning to others to stay out of the sun. The doctor had put her on a course of the topical cream imiquimod to be used on her entire face. The cream stimulated her immune system to produce interferon, a chemical that can kill precancerous cells and early nonmelanoma skin cancers. Because of her extensive sun damage, Willoughby’s face reacted strongly as the immune system destroyed the AKs. For several weeks she had inflamed sores that eventually turned to scabs, which she continued to chronicle with weekly selfies.
After her skin cancer scares and the inflamed face she endured from the AK treatment, Willoughby today is a role model for sun safety. She applies an SPF 30 sunscreen every day and wears a wide-brimmed hat and rash guard out in the pool with her son. When she finds anything suspicious on her skin, she sees her dermatologist immediately.
As her selfie continues to circulate, Willoughby hopes more people will heed the warning she typed below the image: “You only get one skin, and you should take care of it. Learn from other people's mistakes.”
Published on July 20, 2015