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Maine Hair Stylists Take on New Mission: Spotting Skin Cancer
05/06/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. And while doctors say we should all take note of changing moles or spots, there's one area of skin that's virtually impossible to check yourself - the scalp. A new program trains hair stylists to detect signs of skin cancer as they shampoo, comb, and cut. As Patty Wight reports, stylists have some advantages when it comes to spotting signs of the disease.

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Maine Hair Stylists Take on New Mission: Spotting Listen
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Hair stylist Brigitte Whitten perms client Joleen Starks' hair at Hairbenders in Lewiston, as stylist Lisa Giffin and client in the background. Photo: Patty Wight.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. And while doctors say we should all take note of changing moles or spots, there's one area of skin that's virtually impossible to check yourself - the scalp. A new program trains hair stylists to detect signs of skin cancer as they shampoo, comb, and cut. As Patty Wight reports, stylists have some advantages when it comes to spotting signs of the disease.

On a weekday morning, things are busy at Hairbenders salon in Lewiston. There's the snip of scissors, a hair wash in the sink, and lots of chatter - about anything from family life to the merits of watching the movie "Les Mis" multiple times. "It is good, and Hugh Jackman, I mean - oh!"

Hairbenders owner Nancy Bedard says hair styling is a profession that encourages a unique bond with clients.

"A client comes into the salon, you've never met them before, and within 10 minutes you're massaging their head. You're shampooing them," she says. "So you're always interacting. And for someone who feels comfortable with a stylist, right away, it opens up all kinds of avenues of talking."

Including sometimes uncomfortable topics, like cancer. Bedard says she and the other stylists at Hairbenders see suspicious spots on their clients' scalps all the time. Stylist Brigitte Whitten says just the other week, a client finally heeded her advice to get two spots on her scalp checked by a doctor.

"And he asked her, 'What finally brought you in?' And she said, 'My hairdresser said I had to come.'"

One spot turned out to be cancerous. Whitten has sent other clients to the doctor, but she says she wants to learn how to recognize signs of possible skin cancer earlier. That's why she - and all of the other stylists at Hairbenders - signed up for a training at the Dempsey Center for Cancer in Lewiston. It's the first such training by the Melanoma Foundation of New England.

Executive director Deb Girard says 5 to 8 percent of melanomas are found on the head and scalp, but disproportionately count for 10 percent of melanoma deaths.

"So the head and the scalp, more than any other body part, we find these melanomas that are potentially deadly," she says. "And if you think about the fact that you can't really look at your own scalp and the back of your head, then really, what we are doing is asking stylists is to be eyes in the back of your head."

The leader of the training, Lewiston dermatologist Carrine Burns, says when it comes to detecting skin cancer, stylists have an advantage because they see clients every few weeks. And she says it's also a lot easier to examine the scalp when hair is wet.

"Especially women with very thick hair," she says, "and I'm trying to look through their scalp, and I ask a lot, 'Has your stylist ever seen something? You have really thick hair, and it's very hard for me to see when it's styled and hairspray in it.' So when this came out, I thought, 'Thank goodness someone has finally done this.'"

Hairbenders stylist Lisa Giffin says detecting possible skin cancer is the next step in caring for her clients' scalps, a service she's eager to provide.

"It's a must," she says. "I think they need to be aware. They need to trust that if you're the one that's done their hair, that not only is good advice on hair, it's good advice on their skin and scalp also."

Deb Girard from the Melanoma Foundation says the organization will hold similar trainings in Boston and New Hampshire in the coming months. She says the foundation plans to develop an e-learning program for stylists across the country, and hopes to expand to other professions, like aestheticians and massage therapists.

Photo:  Patty Wight



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