“You should have a doctor check this out,” she recalled Least telling her, as he held up a mirror to show her a flesh-colored, shiny spot the size of a nickel.
Van Rey went to a dermatologist’s office, where she was told she had a scaly skin condition commonly known as adult cradle cap. When she returned to see Least the following month, he insisted she return to the doctor.
“This time, they told me that I had eczema,” said Van Rey.
Least, 73, didn’t buy it. At Van Rey’s next appointment, he was adamant.
“Look, I’m seeing some changes in this blemish,” he recalled telling her. “I’m not going to color your hair until you get a second opinion. I insist on it. Something looks off.”
Van Rey went to another dermatologist. This time, a biopsy was done and Van Rey learned she had an aggressive form of melanoma.
“I know today that I probably would have died, if not for Roger,” said Van Rey, 75, who required multiple surgeries and skin grafts before she was ultimately declared cancer-free.
Van Rey’s story is not uncommon, according to Sandra Allten, a clinical research oncology nurse at AdventHealth Daytona Beach Cancer Institute in Florida.
Allten is spearheading an online campaign that trains hairdressers to spot potentially cancerous moles on their clients’ heads. Through the Hairdresser Melanoma Challenge, she now hopes to enlist thousands of stylists to take up the front lines in the fight against skin cancer — the most common cancer worldwide, with 1 in 5 Americans developing it by age 70.
“There are over a million hairdressers out there, and each one of them is seeing an average of five or six clients a day,” she said. “Think of what a difference they could make.”
Although many stylists like Least are already on the lookout for unusual moles and blemishes on their clients’ heads, not all have been trained in what to look for, said Allten, 59. So Eyes on Cancer, an organization that trains beauty and wellness professionals to notice potential trouble spots, allowed the Hairdresser Melanoma Challenge to use the 20-minute video they had created to help hairdressers and others.
“Early detection and prevention is critical,” said Allten, noting that the general five-year survival rate for people with Stage 4 melanoma is less than 23 percent. But when caught at Stage 1, the survival rate is about 99 percent, she said.
“It’s such a sneaky and insidious cancer, and yet it can be preventable,” Allten said. “But it sometimes takes an extra set of eyes and knowing what to look for in places that many people can’t see on their own bodies.”
Because hair stylists are in a unique position to examine their clients’ scalps and necks, Allten’s challenge is a no-brainer, said Kristina Wilson, 35, a stylist who runs Beauty by Kristina at the Skin Deep Day Spa in Cumberland, Maine.
After watching the skin cancer video online, Wilson recently spotted suspicious moles on the heads of two of her regular clients. One client's mole turned out not to be cancerous, while the other client is still awaiting test results on the greenish-brown mole that Wilson spotted on his scalp.
“While it's always nice to cut hair and make people feel good and beautiful about themselves, it’s even more rewarding to know that I could potentially save somebody's life,” she said.
Liza Kuhns knows that feeling. In 2014, Kuhns, a stylist at Studio 27 hair salon in Vernon, Conn., noticed an oddly shaped mole above Melissa Cole’s left eyebrow while cutting her hair.
She suggested Cole get it checked out by a doctor. Cole soon learned that she had squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.
“I'd thought it was just a form of cystic acne,” said Cole, 35, who works as a makeup artist. “Thankfully, it was caught early enough that it didn't spread to my lymph nodes or metastasize."
For Least, who spotted Van Ray’s flesh-colored spot that turned out to be skin cancer, he said he was so happy she beat her cancer that he now refuses to take her money for haircuts.
“She’s been my client for 40 years, and I was thrilled to do what I did for her,” he said. “Hairstylists don’t just put hair on the floor. It’s important to give clients the full treatment, since this is one of the few professions outside the medical field where you physically touch another human being.”
Van Rey now has a message for everyone who regularly visits a barber or stylist: “Treat them with kindness and make sure that you listen,” she said. “Having a haircut just might save your life.”