After years of baking in the sun, Tawny Willoughby developed skin cancer at just 21 – and warns you could be in danger, too

A face covered in red scars and burns – that was the selfie uploaded by former tanning addict Tawny Willoughby that shocked the world this year. The photo, which has been shared more than 69,000 times on Facebook, shows Tawny’s beautiful face as it undergoes intense treatment to rid her of the deadly disease, which she was diagnosed with at just 21. ‘If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay on a tanning bed or 
in the sun, here ya go,’ wrote US-based Tawny, now 27, alongside her photo.

Tawny, who works as nurse in Alabama and has no family history of skin cancer, posted the shocking pic as a stark warning about the dangers of tanning. ‘When I walk past girls sunbathing on the beach, I just want to say: “Stop it! You’re killing yourself,”’ Tawny tells Now. ‘But it does make me sad that I have to be so on guard now.’

The married mum of one began using sunbeds at just 15 – her family actually bought their own – and was often tanning four or five times a week. ‘In the summer I’d mostly be in the sun, but if 
I wasn’t able to lay outside I’d go on the tanning bed. I couldn’t go three days without tanning,’ says naturally pale Tawny.

‘I was trying to fit in – all the popular girls were tanned and I got more male attention when I had a tan. My sisters were always darker than me so it was  a competitive thing.’

Her addiction came to a dramatic end when she was told she had skin cancer six years ago. ‘My diagnosis came from a spot that I’d worried about for 12 months,’ says Tawny. ‘Obviously, I was very emotional when I was first told. 
It was overwhelming because you think it can’t happen to you. Since my initial diagnosis I’ve had five more skin cancers – basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, the two most common types of non-melanoma skin cancer.’

Now, whenever Tawny notices a suspect mark, she sees her doctor. ‘My cancers are usually like moles,’ she explains. ‘But twice it was a sore that hasn’t healed or a red spot that starts bleeding and crusts. The main thing is it never goes away – it looks like it’s going to heal, then it comes back and starts bleeding again.

‘They’ll do a biopsy and send it off to test it. Then they ring you with the result. I go to the dermatologist every six to 12 months and probably have an area of skin cancer removed each time – I cried the first time.’

Tawny, who occasionally uses fake tan, has had to undergo a total lifestyle change. She regularly checks her 31-year-old husband Cody’s skin and has already taught their two-year-old son Kayden the importance of sun protection.‘We try not to do beach vacations any more, but in the sunshine we wear sun shirts so I can be in the pool and not worry so much about my back and shoulders,’ she says. 
‘I make sure Kayden wears at least SPF30 every day. He understands we have to put on sun cream.’
Tawny even fears she won’t live to see her son grow up. ‘I constantly worry about cancer and it’s likely I’ll have more,’ she says. ‘My skin reacts quickly and it grows pretty fast. My biggest fear is melanoma, which can spread to other organs. I don’t want skin cancer to kill me. I’m scared every day.’

Tawny believes it’s celebrities who’ve increased the ‘bronzed is best’ mentality. ‘Actresses, singers and models are usually all tanned,’ she says. ‘But they’re sprayed and bronzed so they’re probably not even damaging their skin – then we go and damage our skin to look like them.’ And Tawny has a stark warning for UK stars like Katie Price, who once admitted: ‘I cane my body like it’s leather. I don’t even use the goggles.’

‘If you’re aware of the dangers and choose to do that to yourself, that’s fine, but just realise the influence you have on young girls,’ Tawny says. ‘I hope Katie’s aware and knows that the damage can take years to surface.

‘It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 or 55 – you can still get skin cancer. So anything you’re worried about, any suspicious mark, get it checked at the doctors to put your mind at ease. There’s no reason to put it off.’

Today, Tawny’s skin is marked with scars, but instead of hiding them she uses them to educate others. ‘I don’t try to hide my scars, but I do cover them and apply lots of sunscreen when I’m in the sun,’ she says. ‘I have had people ask me about the cancer scars – it’s a great way to start the conversation about sun safety.’

Lucy Gornall