Still skipping sunscreen and ignoring the warnings about tanning beds? This photo will change your mind.

By Julie Mazziotta
May 14, 2015

Still skipping sunscreen and ignoring the warnings about tanning beds? This photo will change your mind.

Tawny Willoughby, a 27-year-old nurse based in Alabama, posted a shocking image of her skin cancer treatments on Facebook on April 25th, just in time for it go viral for Skin Cancer Awareness Month in May.

“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,” she wrote in the caption.

The gruesome selfie, which is up to more than 66,600 shares at the time of this writing, shows her skin covered in bloody scabs and blisters. For this particular treatment, Willoughby explained that it was done with a cream called Aldara (imiquimod), a topical treatment for basal cell carcinoma.

"Aldara is an immune-stimulant. So it stimulates your own body to destroy the cancer cells," explains Debra Jaliman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist and author of Skin Rules ($13, "During the course of the treatment you’re very red and inflamed, but it heals without scarring."

Willoughby grew up in a small Kentucky town, where it was normal to hit the tanning beds four or five times a week, she told CNN. She even had her own personal tanning bed at home that she would use whenever her tan would fade away (which she said was often). “Everyone tanned. I didn’t really even think about the future or skin cancer at the time,” Willoughby said.

She went to the dermatologist for the first time at age 21, after a nursing school classmate was diagnosed with melanoma. That's when she got her own diagnosis of skin cancer. Six years later, she’s had basal cell carcinoma five times and squamous cell carcinoma once. She explained in her Facebook post that she now goes to the dermatologist every 6 to 12 months, and she usually has a skin cancer removal each time.

Many people wrongly assume that non-melanoma skin cancers like Willoughby's are no big deal, like getting a mole removed. But, "they do metastasize. They can kill you. It's far less common, but it has to be treated. And they are locally invasive—I had one patient with basal cell carcinoma lose an eye. They can certainly be disfiguring," Dr. Jaliman adds.

Willoughby said she’s “very thankful” that she’s never had melanoma, but she knows that she’s got a good chance of developing it in the future. A 2010 study found that people who have ever used tanning beds have about a 75% higher risk for melanoma than people who have never tanned indoors. Frequent tanners, defined as people who had spent more than 50 hours under the lights, had as much as triple the risk as those who never tanned.

Willoughby hopes that her photo will push others to stay out of the sun—artificial or real. And she’s encouraging everyone to get their skin checked by a dermatologist, even if they don’t see a mole.

“Skin cancer is not always moles, only one of mine have been a mole,” she explained on Facebook. “Get any suspicious, new and growing spot checked out. The sooner you find it the less likely it will leave a disfiguring scar or grow deep enough to metastasize. Melanoma kills, non melanoma [like basal or squamous cell carcinoma] disfigures (and can also kill). Don’t be a statistic!”

With additional reporting by Amelia Harnish.