Aug 19, 2018 | Updated: 01:42 PM EDT

The Selfie That Goes Beyond Skin Deep

May 14, 2015 03:23 PM EDT

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In our increasingly more narcissistic selfie culture, sometimes the right selfie can deliver a powerful message in an unparalleled way.

Despite the massive amount of information on skin cancer and tanning that experts have amassed, many people still get too much sun and sometimes they forego actual sun, opting to get their exposure in tanning beds instead. One woman with skin cancer is trying to use social media to change this part of our American tanning habit by sharing a selfie of her face, blistered and scabbed from skin cancer treatments.

Tawny Willoughby, a nurse and mother of two, shared her "before and after" selfies on April 25th with the following comments:

"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. Wear sunscreen and get a spray tan. You only get one skin and you should take care of it."

Willoughby is 27 years old, but she did the majority of her tanning while she was in high school. During those years she reports using a tanning bed four to five times each week as she chased her naturally paler skin away. She was first diagnosed with skin cancer at age 21 when she was a student in nursing school.

She does not have melanoma, but has thus far been treated for two kinds of skin cancer. She has been treated for squamous cell carcinoma once and basal cell carcinoma no less than five times to date. Skin check dermatologist visits are now part of her life at least twice each year, and it seems likely that they always will be. She also reports that she has some kind of skin cancer removed on most of her visits.

Her original April post, which she created in support of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, has now gone viral. The photo shows her face with what appear to be painful blisters on it. The blisters are from Aldara, a treatment cream which prompts the body to attack cancer with its own immune response. While these inflammation and eruptive reactions are not permanent, they may give tanners pause.

Willougby's purpose is to encourage people to take better care of their skin.

"Learn from other people's mistakes. 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."

She has described her treatments with some detail, and edited her post once it gained exposure to clarify that her tanning habits were not extraordinary:

"I never laid in the tanning bed and in the sun in the same day. I never laid in the tanning bed twice in one day," she explained. "This treatment was done using a cream called Aldara (imiquimod). I've also had the following treatments: Curettage and Electrodessication, Cryosurgery (freezing with liquid nitrogen), Surgical Excision and Photodynamic Therapy (PDT)."

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), skin cancer will develop on the skin of one in five Americans at some point in their lives. AAD confirms that in excess of 400,000 cases of skin cancer annually are linked to indoor tanning. The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) recommends that all people use preventative measures such as broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, the water-resistant variety in particular. SCF also states that tanning and UV tanning booths should be avoided. Most experts also recommend that you seek the advice of a dermatologist once per year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the US skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, and melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. Skin cancer can be caused by UV exposure, and the exposure may be from the sun or artificially created. Warning signs include moles that change color, shape, or size, new growth on the skin, or a sore that fails to heal. Dermatologists list fair skin, a history of sun or tanning bed exposure, and blond or red hair as risk factors.

The widespread sharing of the photos was a surprise to Willoughby, and she is thrilled by the hope that her story might save someone's life.

"I've lost count of how many people shared it now and told me I've helped them," she said to CNN. "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."

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