Former Sun Worshipper Sheds Light on Skin Cancer Risks

Tawny Willoughby is a striking 27 year old, with long blonde hair and deep blue eyes. But last week, the southern belle posted some gruesome photos of herself online. The photos show a close-up of Tawny’s face, covered in oozing blisters and crimson scabs. The culprit? A cream-based treatment for skin cancer.

This wasn’t Tawny’s first case of skin cancer. Since turning 21, Tawny has faced six diagnoses: five for basal cell carcinoma and one for squamous cell carcinoma. Each case has necessitated painful procedures to remove the cancer, including surgical excision, liquid nitrogen freezing, curettage, and electrodessication.

Tawny’s battle against skin cancer can be traced back to her teens. At that time, she began to tan 4 – 5 days a week in a tanning bed. In fact, like several friends, she had her own personal tanning bed at home! Other days, Tawny soaked in the Alabama sun outdoors. In her words, “Everyone tanned … I didn’t really even think about the future or skin cancer at the time.”

In reality, however, UV exposure from tanning beds or sunlight is the leading cause of skin cancer—particularly for fair individuals with a family history of melanoma. Such exposure can damage skin cells’ genetic material, leading cells to grow uncontrollably. Indeed, research suggests that tanning bed users are 74% more likely to develop melanoma. Furthermore, sustaining 5+ blistering sunburns in youth can increase non-melanoma skin cancer risk by 68% and melanoma risk by 80%.

It is thus no surprise that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States—the land of the coveted bronze glow. Approximately 3.5 million are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer and 137,000 are diagnosed with melanoma each year. In 2015, these two types of skin cancer are expected to result in 6230 and 9940 deaths, respectively. That equates to 1.8 deaths every hour.

On the bright side, skin cancer is highly preventable. Simply minimizing exposure to UV light could prevent over 3 million cases of skin cancer annually. To do so, dermatologists recommend seeking shade between 10am and 4pm (when your shadow is shorter than you), covering up with tightly woven fabrics, applying broad spectrum sunscreen and lip balm with a 30+ SPF, and wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Finally, avoid tanning beds and sun lamps, as “more people develop skin cancer because of tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking”.

Fortunately, people are starting to see the light. In response to Tawny’s viral photo, now shared nearly 70,000 times, people have pledged to “get rid of [my tanning bed]” and to “never tan again”. Tawny is amazed with the results, stating “it makes me really happy to…help someone save their skin and possibly their life.” She adds, “You only get one skin and you should take care of it. Learn from other people’s mistakes.”x

To learn more about skin cancer, please contact the Skin Cancer Foundation, the American Melanoma Foundation, or our partners Kure It Cancer ResearchOregon Cancer Ski Out, the SAMFund for Young Adult Survivors of Cancer.

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