During the hot summer months, proper skin protection is more important than ever. By now most people know to wear sunscreen during long periods of sun exposure, or risk the adverse side effects—of which the most notable, and deadly, is skin cancer.
But it turns out you can get melanoma in one exposed place where you might never apply sunscreen: the scalp. We assume that our hair will block the rays, and we don’t need any further protection, but it can happen, and if it does it’s difficult to spot.
Luckily for Eileen Korey, she did have someone who routinely checked her scalp: her hair colorist.
When Korey visited her local salon for a touch-up in June, it was a normal, everyday appointment. She had visited the same stylist, Kari Phillips, on a monthly basis for years.
But this appointment turned out to be a life-saver.
“Did you hit your head or something?” Phillips told Korey as she was washing her hair, according to Today.
“I see something here and I don’t like what I see.”
Phillips snapped a photo and showed it to Korey, revealing something frightening: a dark, irregular spot on a bare part of her scalp.
Phillips knew it was a recent growth, since she hadn’t noticed it in the previous month’s appointment. And since her sister was a dermatologist, she knew what to look for and that the scalp was an overlooked area when it comes to skin protection.
“They have no clue what is going on,” Phillips explained to Today. “I am always looking.”
She encouraged Korey to have the spot checked out.
Korey made an appointment with Dr. Pam Davis. She agreed: it didn’t look good and had all the signs of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer. The doctor immediately ordered a biopsy.
Luckily, thanks to early detection, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.
The melanoma was stage zero, meaning it was only skin level and hadn’t infiltrated deeper. It will need to be surgically removed, but won’t require chemotherapy or radiation.
“If you’re gonna have melanoma, it’s the best melanoma to have,” she told WKYC.
Still, it was a terrifyingly close call. Korey immediately called up her stylist, who she credits for saving her life.
But when asked by WKYC, Phillips downplayed her heroism:
“She saved her own life, because she did something about it.”
Korey is herself actually something of a local celebrity. In the ’80s and ’90s, she was the health reporter for WKYC Cleveland. So after her cancer scare, Korey knew she had the responsibility to spread the word about this hidden danger.
“I wanted other people to know melanoma can be on the scalp,” she told her former news station.
So what can people do to protect their scalp from cancer?
It may sound unusual for your hair stylist to check you for cancer, but the doctors actually consider it a smart strategy. The best time to check the scalp is when the hair is wet, and with a second pair of eyes on you, a hair appointment is ideal for screening.
“Hairdressers have a real opportunity to get elbow deep in an area that is hard for us to see,” Dr. Adam Friedman explained to Today.
Of course, if you don’t have monthly hair coloring appointments like Korey does, you can just check yourself after a shower or have a loved one check for you.
Remember the warning signs.
Melanoma can be identified using the American Academy of Dermatology’s ABCDE guidelines:
A = Asymmetry
One half is unlike the other half.B = Border
An irregular, scalloped or poorly defined border.C = Color
Is varied from one area to another; has shades of tan, brown or black, or is sometimes white, red, or blue.D = Diameter
Melanomas are usually greater than 6mm (the size of a pencil eraser) when diagnosed, but they can be smaller.E = Evolving
A mole or skin lesion that looks different from the rest or is changing in size, shape or color.
And don’t rely on your hair to protect you.
You can lower your risk of getting melanoma in the first place with some simple preventative measures. One major change Korey has made after her cancer scare is she always wears a hat when she goes outdoors.
“We are under the impression that our hair protects us,” she told Today. “We just don’t think about it.”
Dr. Friedman agreed that the scalp is frequently overlooked. “It is tough to either apply sunscreen to the scalp or always wear a hat, but both are important.”
Don’t like the idea of running a goop of suntan lotion through your hair? Use a spray instead, Friedman suggests.
But he also emphasizes the importance of early treatment: go to a doctor immediately if you suspect anything. “Early identification increases the likelihood of better outcomes,” he told Today.
“Check yourself, check your partner, but there is a bigger picture involved — if you see something say something.”