Facing skin cancer, a young mother warns of the risks of tanning beds

Like most of the teens in her rural Kentucky hometown — and this probably goes for teens everywhere — Tawny Willoughby cared about her appearance. And that meant not only sporting a "healthy" glow, but having a nice, even overall bronze. To achieve this aesthetic year 'round, she lay in a tanning bed four or five times a week — she even had her own tanning bed at home.

Unfortunately, her devotion to tanning wasn't without consequence. At 21 years old, she received her first skin cancer diagnosis.

By the time she was 27, she had battled basal cell carcinoma five times and one instance of squamous cell carcinoma. The treatments she underwent were often painful and distressing. But nothing distressed her more that the prospect of developing the most deadly form of skin cancer — Melanoma — and missing out on her son's life. Having never considered the potential harm she was doing to her skin while tanning, she decided she wanted to help others avoid the same mistake. She posted a photo on Facebook showing the sores on her face brought about by a cancer treatment.

She wrote, "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. 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."

Tawny's post immediately opened eyes and started to spread over the internet like wildfire. Soon she was overwhelmed by comments and questions. So she shared a bit more of her story: 

"Edited to add: To answer a few questions and comments I've seen, I did the bulk of my tanning in high school. I sometimes laid up to 4-5 times a week (I laid frequently because my tan faded very fast). 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. I had my first skin cancer diagnosis at 21. Now, at 27, I've had basal cell carcinoma 5 times and squamous cell carcinoma once (excluding my face). I go to the dermatologist every 6-12 months and usually have a skin cancer removed at each checkup. I'm very thankful to not have had melanoma! Skin cancer is not always moles, only one of mine have been a mole. Get any suspicious, new and growing spot checked out. Anything that doesn't heal, possibly bleeds on and off and crusts. The sooner you find it the less likely it will leave a disfiguring scar or grow deep enough to metastasize. Melanoma kills, non melanoma disfigures (and can also kill). Don't be a statistic! 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). I'm happy to answer any questions you have about my story and skin cancer in general! Thanks for the shares❤️❤️❤️❤️ "

Tawny has now been dealing with the after effects of her tanning habit for some years and she continues to share her experiences with others. While she's grateful to have caught each of her skin cancers early enough to be treated, she also has to remain vigilant to catch any new ones. This means regular visits to the dermatologist.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer, with over 400,000 of those cases directly linked to the use of tanning beds. And young people aren't immune. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for adults 25-29 years of age and the second most common for those 15-29.

Here is a list of dos and don'ts from the Skin Cancer Foundation to keep skin healthy and cancer free.

If Tawny could turn back time, she would never have placed so much value on having a tan. She has learned the hard way that it is certainly not worth the risks! But she's glad that so many people have read her warning and taken her advice to heart. "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."

Even if you've seen Tawny's story before, it never hurts to be reminded how important it is to take care of your skin. As she so aptly put it, "You only have one skin and you should take care of it." Have a friend who still visits the tanning bed? Make sure they see this! 

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