This woman's skin cancer selfie may have helped save lives

Selfies are one of the most popular types of photos you’ll find on social media — whether it’s a perfectly-posed finger-in-the-mouth shot or showing off that you’re on an enviable dream vacation. But they can also be used as a tool for good.

A new study shows the positive impact that a viral selfie can have. Back in April 2015, Tawny Willoughby (then Dzierzek), a nurse who lives in Kentucky, posted a candid selfie on her Facebook page, which revealed her red, scabbed face after receiving treatment for skin cancer. In the post, Willoughby shared that this was a consequence of her frequently visiting tanning beds during high school, sometimes as much as four times a week.

Certain selfies can help raise awareness about important health issues, such as skin cancer. (Photo: Getty Images)
Certain selfies can help raise awareness about important health issues, such as skin cancer. (Photo: Getty Images)

“I had my first skin cancer diagnosis at 21,” she shared in the post. “Now, at 27, I’ve had basal cell carcinoma 5 times and squamous cell carcinoma once (excluding my face). I go to the dermatologist every 6-12 months and usually have a skin cancer removed at each checkup.”

Willoughby shared the raw post to raise awareness about the dangers of tanning and the risks of skin cancer. “Don’t let tanning prevent you from seeing your children grow up,” she wrote. “That’s my biggest fear now that I have a two year old little boy of my own.”

Her post went viral and has been shared more than 100,000 times and has received nearly 9,000 reactions.

Researchers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and San Diego State University wanted to find out just how powerful one selfie could be. After comparing Google metrics, they found that online searches for skin cancer shot up to “near-record levels” around the time Willoughby’s graphic selfie went viral, according to the study, “increasing 162 percent compared with historical trends on May 13, 2015, and 155 percent on May 14, 2015.”

Study co-author John W. Ayers, PhD, of San Diego State University, told EurekAlert: “In practical terms, this translated into about 200,000 more Google searches than would otherwise have been expected in just those six days.”

Lead author of the study Seth M. Noar, PhD, University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center member and professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism, shares with Yahoo Lifestyle that selfies have the potential to create awareness and save lives. “But not just any selfie — in this case, one paired with a compelling story about the real consequences of tanning for a young mom.”

So what is it about this selfie that was so effective at delivering an important health message? Noar says it’s a combination of three things: “First, it was a compelling story about a real young woman from Kentucky who got skin cancer from tanning — not a statistic. It’s easy to relate to her story and feel empathy for her, especially since she had a young child that she was worried about not being around to raise. The second thing is the graphic photo that she shared — it’s difficult to discount her story when you see her selfie with ‘real’ evidence of the toll that tanning beds have taken on her. Tanning could have given her melanoma, which could have cost her her life.”

He continues: “Third and finally, since this was posted on Facebook, it allowed people not only to comment on it, but to share it with their friends and networks. And share it they did — the media picked it up after it was shared more than 50,000 times, and as of today it has been shared more than 105,000 times.”

Even Noar was surprised by the positive power of a single selfie. “What surprised me is how much one person’s voice could have an impact on public interest about skin cancer,” he shares. “Her Facebook post went ‘viral’ – it was shared about 50,000 times even before the news media picked up the story. Once they did, the impact increased exponentially because it reached many more people through news coverage such as her interview on ‘Good Morning America.’ We have seen celebrity stories about illness having this kind of impact, but rarely do we see an ordinary person’s story have this kind of resonance with the public.”

Noar says there’s also a takeaway here for health organizations and educators — namely, that there’s a more effective way to get the message across that tanning beds are dangerous. “Also, if we can identify these kinds of events when they are happening, then public health communicators and advocates can try and amplify the message. We now know that this event was a big deal. If we had known at the time, we could have encouraged more media coverage and outreach to high risk tanning populations, potentially making the impact even greater than what we saw.”

Willoughby, whose skin cancer awareness-raising selfie may have saved lives, shares with Yahoo Lifestyle that she was notified about the study a little over a year ago. “I wasn’t sure if anything would come of it,” she says, “but I am happy to see the results of the studies.”

For Willoughby, she hopes that people stay vigilant about having their skin examined by a dermatologist, but she stresses the importance of checking your own skin regularly and keeping an eye out for any suspicious changes. “I believe you have to be your own advocate,” she shares. “Do your own skin checks and if you are particularly worried about something, have it checked out (aside from your annual exams).”

She continues: “You know your body better than anyone else, and sometimes things are overlooked. If you feel like something is wrong and it is not addressed appropriately, request testing, follow-ups, or get a second opinion.”

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