My greatest satisfaction in practicing medicine for more than 50 years was being able to diagnose and treat thousands of skin cancers. Making the early diagnosis of melanoma—and possibly saving a life—was especially rewarding for me.
As a retired board-certified dermatologist, I continue to try to educate people about the dangers of skin cancer. For Skin Cancer Awareness Month, I hope to encourage you to participate in this worthy goal.
I often discovered a suspicious lesion when the patient was unaware of it and was actually in my office for a different problem. These two photos show melanomas I found in such a manner when examining the head and neck area.
This photo is of a former patient who had this scalp lesion discovered by her hairstylist, who suggested she have it checked out by a dermatologist. Note: The scalp is often overlooked by physicians when screening for skin cancer, which is why I believe beauty professionals have a unique and important role in looking at areas that your clients can’t easily see.
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It’s derived from melanocytes (the skin’s pigment cells) and can spread quickly through the lymph nodes or bloodstream, if not detected at an early stage. Although melanoma only accounts for one per cent of all skin cancers, it results in the most skin cancer-related deaths. It’s also dangerous because it’s subtle and usually has no symptoms. Unless you have someone looking at your skin on a routine basis, you might not notice it until it’s in a more advanced stage.
People with fair skin are at higher risk for melanoma and it’s often related to sun exposure, however it can develop in anyone with any skin colour, and on any area of the body. In fact, if you have darker skin, you’re more likely to develop a melanoma in a hidden area that sees little or no sun.
Scalp melanomas are more lethal than other melanomas. One large study found that people with scalp and neck melanomas die from the disease at nearly twice the rate of people with melanomas elsewhere on the body.
Early detection of melanoma makes a tremendous difference. There is a 99 per cent chance of a five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early. The survival rate drops to 65 per cent if the disease reaches the lymph nodes, and less than 25 per cent if it spreads to distant organs.
Hairstylists and colourists are in a unique position to detect skin cancers on the scalp because they have a good view of its difficult-to-see areas during a salon service. Also, they usually see their clients on a regular basis and may notice a change on the skin or scalp.
The appearance of skin cancer will vary depending on the type of cancer, but it’s important to be on the lookout for any suspicious spot that may appear as a pigmented growth or a non-healing lesion.
To improve the efficiency of scalp examinations, an excellent method using a blow dryer was recommended for physicians in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. By holding the dryer approximately one foot from the client (with the nozzle pointing in an upward direction), the scalp can be visualized quickly and efficiently by moving the hair from underneath. This method is something that hairstylists could do almost every visit to look more closely at the scalp.
If you find something abnormal on your client’s neck or scalp, you should always tell them in a calm and professional manner. “Simply point out the suspicious-looking spot, then suggest they have a dermatologist look at it,” advises Dr. Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD dermatologist and Skin Cancer Foundation President. “Don’t worry about offending your clients, but try not to alarm them either. This could be lifesaving advice for the client.”
While you don’t require any special training to look for a suspicious lesion, I would encourage you to get more information here, and even take the free course if you desire. However, I encourage you to immediately begin looking more closely at the scalp, head, neck, and behind the ears of your clients, and perhaps save someone’s life!