LEWISTON, Maine — As with most forms of cancer, the earlier that signs of melanoma are discovered, the better a patient’s odds of survival.
Those signs, which come in the form of abnormal moles or lesions, can be difficult to find when they’re on the back of a person’s head or covered by hair.
“If you catch a melanoma at its earliest state, you have something like a 90 percent cure rate,” said Deb Girard, executive director of the Melanoma Foundation of New England. “But you can’t see your head and your scalp. Very often, by the time these head and scalp and neck lesions are found, they’re at a later stage.”
That’s why the foundation is launching “The Skinny on Skin,” a program aimed at teaching barbers and hairstylists to look for the telltale marks of melanoma, as well as how to talk to clients about those signs when they’re spotted.
“You don’t see your doctor more than a couple of times a year, but you see your barber or your hairstylist every six or eight weeks,” Girard said. “About 5 to 8 percent of melanomas are found on the head and scalp. One of the reasons we’re so interested in doing this is that they account for a disproportionate percentage of melanoma deaths compared to other parts of the body. The mortality rate is around 10 percent for those melanomas [found on the head and scalp], so it’s a higher percentage of mortalities to incidence.”
The foundation is holding three program kickoff events around New England, including one on May 6 at the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer, Hope and Healing at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. The events will include trainings for hairstylists and demonstrations of the foundation’s ultraviolet facial scanner, designed to detect lurking skin damage.
“It’s going to be a great program for hair professionals,” said Maureen Higgins, cancer health outreach educator for the Dempsey Center. “They are the folks that see the backs of our heads more often than other people, and [it’s important for them to be] looking for melanoma, which is one of three kinds of skin cancer and it’s potentially the deadliest kind of skin cancer.”
The springtime initiative comes as the organization seeks to rebound from Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill strongly supported by the foundation, which would have banned tanning bed use by people under the age of 18.
“It passed in both the [Maine] House and Senate, and the governor vetoed the bill,” Girard said. “From the perspective of people who are living with melanoma or dying, this makes absolutely no sense.”
Opponents of the bill argued it would infringe on the rights of parents to decide what is best for their teenagers, but supporters pointed to research that tanning beds can cause cancer just like tobacco products, which youths cannot legally use.
According to the International Agency on Research for Cancer, tanning bed use increases the risk of melanoma of the skin by 75 percent when regular use starts before the age of 30.
Girard said she hopes that through the outreach involved with “The Skinny on Skin,” the foundation will be able to convince salon owners — about 20 percent in Maine operate tanning beds at their facilities — that youths should not be allowed to use the devices.
“We really do need to educate the public about the dangers of tanning beds, and we can use stylists as ambassadors for that message,” she said. “I think the best that we can do is educate them about the dangers, and hope that if they have the facts, they’ll make good decisions.”
Girard said by summer, the foundation hopes to make its training to help barbers and hairstylists to identify signs of melanoma and to discuss the topic with clients accessible online.
“It’s free,” Girard said of the training program. “Really, our goal is to increase the number of people who are looking at your skin so we can reduce the number of fatal melanomas. … There are going to be three and a half million skin cancers diagnosed this year, including almost 80,000 cases of melanoma. Of those, about 10,000 people will die. When you look at those numbers, you start to think about what we can do differently.”