Viral: woman shares gruesome skin cancer photo to warn against sunbeds

A shocking photo of a woman undergoing treatment for skin cancer has gone viral, receiving over 50 000 shares after being posted on Facebook in April 2015.

The graphic photo shows a woman's face covered in scabs and sores as a result of the treatment she is undergoing for skin cancer, accompanied by a caption warning others about using sunbeds.

skin cancer Tawny Willoughby

Read: Skin cancer doesn't deter indoor tanners

Tawny Willoughby, the woman in the photo, is a 27 year-old mom from Alabama in the United States. In April this year, she was undergoing treatment for skin cancer and decided to post the photograph to show just how devastating sunbeds can be, according to the caption of her Facebook post.

In the small town where Tawny grew up, it is commonplace to use tanning beds. In the quest for the perfect tan, Tawny and her friends would use sunbeds four or five times every week, sparing little thought for the future and the possibility of cancer.

She only first considered going to a dermatologist at the age of 21 when one of her nursing school classmates was diagnosed with melanoma. The appointment was a major eye-opener - Tawny also had skin cancer.

"Now, at 27, I've had basal cell carcinoma 5 times and squamous cell carcinoma once (excluding my face)," Tawny says.

Tawny is paying the price for the careless ways of her youth. She now has to visit the dermatologist once or twice every year and each time, has more cancer removed:

"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."

Read: Tougher warnings for tanning beds

A leading South African dermatologist weighs in

After seeing the shocking images, Health24 decided to consult Dr. Willie Visser, Head of Dermatology at the University of Stellenbosch, for an expert opinion. 

We asked him if such extensive damage could really be caused by using a sunbed:

"This is very likely due to sunbedding. She has severe UV damage to her face. We can’t see the rest of her body on the photos, but there is most probably also a lot of damage."

Dr. Visser believes that Tawny could also be suffering from extensive damage to other areas of her body:

"Her body will also have damage, we just can’t see it on the pictures. Facial skin is more susceptible to damage. Everything you see on the photo is not necessarily skin cancer, but can also be due to the inflammatory changes caused by her treatment (most likely Aldara cream). It does show she has massive amounts of UV damage.

You may think that using a sunbed once in a while, isn't dangerous but that simply isn't the case. Dr. Visser explains that using a sunbed is always dangerous and that those under the age of 18 are at the greatest risk:

"Sunbedding is ALWAYS dangerous. It causes DNA damage. Even one session will cause damage. More than 10 sessions and your risk for cancer increases dramatically. Especially under the age of 18, this is very dangerous. Think of all the young people using sunbeds prior matric farewells."

A recent statistic published in the  Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology supports Dr. Visser's view. It found that children who use indoor tanning apparatus such as sunbeds increase their lifetime risk for developing melanoma by 85%. Those who tan indoors 10 or more times have a 34% more likely to develop melanoma.

Dr. Visser is actually so opposed to sunbeds that he believes they should be illegal. In fact, he recently met with the CEO of Virgin Active in South Africa to discuss having their 'tan cans' removed from their gyms:

"No one should be using them. They should be banned. There is currently a ban in the USA on using sunbeds before the age of 18. (There are no rules and controls in SA). Some countries ban it completely – we should too. The FDA warns about it. I had a discussion with the CEO of Virgin Active last week to remove all tan cans from their gyms. We still have to see if he attends to this."

Read more:

CANSA calls for bans on tanning beds

More evidence links tanning beds to skin cancer

Many young people at risk of skin cancer

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