Skin Cancer Check May Come With New Hairdo

MONDAY Oct. 17, 2011 -- A trusted hairdresser may be privvy to your deepest secrets -- your age, your real hair color and maybe even the name of your plastic surgeon. Your stylist also may be the first to spot the telltale signs of deadly skin cancer.

"Hairdressers and barbers can potentially play a key role in detection of early melanoma if they are trained on how to look at the skin for atypical moles and lesions while they are taking care of their customer's hair," said Alan C. Geller, a senior lecturer in Society, Human Development and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and lead researcher of a new study.

"They have a unique view of these high-risk sites," Geller said. If they see something questionable, they can suggest their client see a primary care physician or a dermatologist."

About 6 percent of all melanomas, the deadliest type of skin cancer, are found on the scalp and neck, and these cancers accounted for 10 percent of all melanoma deaths in the United States from 1973 to 2003. With a hairdresser's help, potentially cancerous abnormalities can be detected early, when they are most treatable, the researchers said.

Already, many hair professionals say they do examine their clients' head, neck and face, according to the study, published in the October issue of the Archives of Dermatology. And many more expressed interest in doing so, the survey found.

"I've had numerous referrals from hairdressers," said Dr. Michele Green, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "They notice, because that's what they're doing all day long."

For the study, Geller's team reviewed surveys completed by 203 professional hairdressers from 17 salons in the Houston area. The hairdressers were asked how often they looked for abnormal moles on the head, neck and face of their customers, among other questions.

In the previous month, about 37 percent of the hairdressers said they had looked at the scalps of half their customers; nearly 29 percent had examined the necks of more than half their clients and about 15 percent had checked the faces of more than 50 percent of customers. The head and neck probably were examined more often than faces because hairdressers and barbers spend more time behind their customers than in front of them, the researchers said.

The greater the hairdressers' own awareness of good skin protection practices, the more likely they were to examine a customer's skin, the study found.

Fifty-eight percent of the hairdressers said they had recommended at least one client to see a doctor for an abnormal mole.

Sixty-nine percent said they were "somewhat" or "very likely" to give customers a pamphlet on skin cancer. In addition, about half said they were "very" or "extremely" interested in taking part in a skin cancer education program, the researchers found.

Moreover, 25 percent said they "often" or "always" share general health information with their customers.

But fewer than one-third actually had any formal training about skin cancer.

Dr. Shasa Hu, an assistant professor in the department of dermatology and cutaneous surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, agreed that hairdressers and barbers can play a significant role in detecting skin cancer early.

"There is a need for public education on skin cancer," Hu said. "This is a great way to expand education about skin cancer."

"We don't want hairdressers diagnosing skin cancer; we want hairdressers to pay attention to their customer's scalp and behind the ears and neck, basically areas that customers cannot access easily, and point out any suspicious lesions so that customers can go to a physician," Hu said.

Melanoma of the head and neck is particularly lethal. For early-stage melanoma of the head or neck, the five-year survival rate is about 83 percent, compared with just over 92 percent for early-stage melanoma found on other areas of the body, the researchers said.

The study has some limitations, the authors said, and should be considered a preliminary assessment of existing practices. Only one salon chain was included in the survey, so additional research is needed, they said.

Still, with hairdressers clearly doubling as lay health advisers, future programs should be developed to give them expert training, the researchers said.

More information

For more information on skin cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.

Posted: October 2011


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