Woman's Skin Cancer Selfie Goes Viral

A 27-year-old showed Facebook the ugly side of tanning gone wrong.

May 13, 2015, 2:23 PM

— -- Dermatologists said they are torn about how the public may react to a young woman who posted a photo of herself undergoing treatment for skin cancer.

Tawny Willoughby, a 27-year-old mother of a toddler, took to Facebook to show the world the ugly side of tanning gone wrong.

"If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go!" she wrote. "This is what skin cancer treatment can look like."

The skin on her face is covered with angry, painful-looking scabs because she has used a treatment called Aldara, which goes by the generic name imiquimod, she wrote in the post.

Dermatologist Dr. Barney Kenet, who has never met or treated Willoughby, said the cream is used to trigger an immune system response to kill abnormal cells for patients with non-melanoma skin cancers like Willoughby's. It's also used to treat genital warts, he said.

"The reason it's so horrific is that the immune system is very powerful and what stimulates it to attack these abnormal cells really destroys them with a lot of inflammation," he said. "This picture represents the extent of her damage."

Not all the scabs are spots where Willoughby had cancer, Kenet said, but they're abnormal pre-cancerous cells. If a person with perfectly healthy skin put the cream on, that person likely would not have a reaction to the cream at all.

"It's a great message and it's a perfect example of what happens to you if you use -- in this case -- tanning beds," said Kenet, a dermatologist at New York-Presbyterian Weill-Cornell Medical Center.

PHOTO: Tawny Willoughby posted this photo to  her Facebook page on April 25, 2015 to draw attention to the risks of skin cancer.
Tawny Willoughby posted this photo to her Facebook page on April 25, 2015 to draw attention to the risks of skin cancer.
Tawny Willoughby/Facebook

But Dr. Neil Korman, a professor of dermatology at U.H. Case Medical Center who has not treated Willoughby, said he worries patients will shy away from this kind of treatment because Willoughby appears to have taken the photo on the worst day of her treatment, and she didn't mention that it's not painful.

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

Willoughby wrote that she tanned four to five times a week in high school and she has been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma once and basal cell carcinoma five times since her first diagnosis at age 21. She wrote that she's lucky not to have melanoma, which can metastasize, but she's had cancer cut and scooped out, electrodissected, frozen with liquid nitrogen, surgically removed and killed with photodynamic therapy, which combines drugs and light therapy.

"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."

Willoughby was not immediately available for comment.

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