As summer gets underway, people are beginning to plan their trips to the beach, their week-long vacations at lakefront properties, and plenty of other fun activities that involve spending hours and hours in the sun. To get a jump on their summer sun exposure, some people might even hit the tanning bed for a few sessions, thinking that it’s safer than lying out in the sun to get a tan.

In reality, tanning beds are just as dangerous, if not more so, than lying in the sun trying to get a tan. The UVA rays, the rays that are responsible for increasing the signs of aging and for skin cancer, found in tanning beds tend to be much more concentrated and stronger than the UVA rays from the sun. Using a tanning bed for any length of time can spell disaster for your skin.

27-year-old Tawnie Willoughby has become the face of what a frequent tanning habit can do to your skin. Growing up in Kentucky, Willoughby  had a tanning bed in her  home, which she used on a regular basis, up to a five times a week. Now a nurse, Willoughby was shocked into seeing a dermatologist at the age of 21, after one of her classmates in nursing school was diagnosed with melanoma, the most malignant and deadly form of skin cancer.

Although Willoughby herself hasn’t been diagnosed with melanoma, she has had basal cell carcinoma five times and has been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma once. While rarely fatal, basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer and can cause significant disfigurement. Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common form of skin cancer, can also be disfiguring. If allowed to grow and spread, it can also be fatal.

Just in time for Skin Cancer Awareness month, Willoughby posted a photo of herself, taken after a treatment with imiquimod, a topical cream, for skin cancer. Her selfie quickly went viral, and was shared nearly 70,000 times. Willoughby was featured on CNN and in a variety of newspapers, quickly becoming a cautionary tale about the risks of tanning.

Treating Skin Cancer

As Willoughby’s selfie shows, the treatment for skin cancer can often be a disfiguring, or even more so, than the cancer itself. When a surgeon removes the cancer from the skin, he will often need to cut out a wide area, or margin, around the cancer, to make sure that all of the cancerous cells have been removed. Even in cases when a non-surgical method is used, such as imiquimod, the side effects can be unsettling or unpleasant to look at. Side effects from imiquimod include blisters and scabs, flaking of the skin, and redness.

Reconstructive Surgery to Repair the Damage

While skin cancer can be disfiguring and its removal can leave an open wound or scar, which can be particularly upsetting if it is on the face, reconstructivesurgery can help repair the damage and restore a person’s appearance. The reconstruction can involve creating a flap of skin to cover the area where the skin cancer was removed. Depending on the size of the area, or the location, the surgeon may take a graft of skin from another part of the body and transfer it to the disfigured area.

Protecting the Skin

In many ways, it is better to take the steps needed to protect your skin from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays than to undergo treatment for skin cancer and reconstruction afterwards. Staying out of tanning beds is the first step to take towards protecting your skin from cancer. The next step is to remember to use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 on a daily basis. Make sure you’re using enough sunscreen, at least one ounce for your entire body, applied every two hours when you are outdoors.

Keep an eye on your skin and if you see anything suspicious, such as a new mole, a mole that’s changed in anyway, or a new rough or scaly patch, see a doctor right away. While melanoma is a cancer worth protecting yourself against and looking out for, it’s not the only type of skin cancer that can be caused by exposure to the sun.

In the Virginia Beach area, board certified facial plastic surgeon Dr. Kyle Choe performs reconstructive surgery on patients who have had facial skin cancer tumors removed. Whether you’ve had a tumor removed or are concerned about an unusual spot on your skin, contact Dr. Choe for a consultation by calling 757.389.5850 today.