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Surprising skin cancer spotter? Your hair stylist

They make us look fabulous by cutting, coloring and styling our hair, but hair stylists and barbers could also serve on the front lines of detecting skin cancers on the scalp, neck and face, a new study suggests.

Researchers surveyed more than 200 stylists and barbers from 17 Houston-area salons and found that while few of them had formal training in detecting cancer, more than half of them already had found a cancerous mole or lesion on customers. They also expressed interest in learning more about how to better detect cancers on their customers’ scalps, faces and necks.

Alan C. Geller, a senior study author says researchers conducted the survey because 10 percent of fatal melanoma is found was on the scalp. They were concerned about the gap between who was diagnosed with melanoma and who died from it, and wanted to see if there was a need for more training among hair dressers. Their findings are released today in the Archives of Dermatology.

“The scalp is not a place that people can easily look at on their own, and we don’t think a lot of physicians are looking for melanoma on the scalp,” says Geller, a senior lecturer at the Harvard University School of Public Health. “Most people make 10 visits or more a year to see their hair dressers and barbers and they tend to look more carefully for mold and legions on the scalp.”

Aubree Carpenter is glad the stylist she saw only once noticed that she had a strange-looking mole on the back of her left ear in June 2003. Carpenter, then a teen, went home and told her mother. Within days, she was diagnosed with melanoma. Because the cancer was detected so early, she had surgery, but didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation.

“She saved my life,” says Carpenter, 27, of Chattanooga, Tenn. “She said, ‘There’s something like a mole back here, and it looks pretty bad.’ If she hadn’t told me that, I would have gotten my hair cut, gone off to summer camp to be a counselor and lifeguard and never would have known anything about it.”

It’s that kind of action that Geller is hoping for.

The group of researchers already has begun efforts to train stylists in the Houston area. In fact, the study’s lead author, Dr. Elizabeth Bailey, who practices in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, found legions and mole in a participants’ hair while she trained 100 Houston area stylists to detect cancer on the scalp.

A group of doctors and medical students also are training stylists through the Melanoma Foundation of New England, Geller says.

“We think this is very positive,” he says. “The next step is to give more training so people will know to ask their stylists and barbers to take a good look. We’re cautiously optimistic of what this can do.”

Dr. Eliot Mostow, a dermatologist in Akron, Ohio, says other professionals such as massage therapists, manicurists and other professionals who have close contact with clients also can serve as “eyes in the field.”

“This is not primary prevention because you are not preventing sunburn, but it’s secondary prevention looking for problems in screening,” says the professor and chair of the Dermatology Section at Northeastern Ohio College of Medicine. “The concept in this case is to look at how we can close the gap in screening for skin cancer. This might close a clinical practice gap.”