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Hairdressers learning to identify signs of skin cancer with new training program

Your hairdresser could save your life — in further proof that not all heroes wear capes.

Salons across the province are training their stylists to detect early signs of skin cancer in customers through a program called Sty-Lives — short for Styling Hair and Saving Lives. 

The Canada-wide initiative — led by two Ontario-based medical students in partnership with the B.C.-based Save Your Skin Foundation — trains hairdressers to detect lesions on the ears, faces and scalps of their clients. 

“Ninety per cent of skin cancer is preventable if we catch it early enough,” said Kathy Barnard, founder of the Save Your Skin Foundation, in an interview with Chris Walker on CBC’s Daybreak South

Barnard, a melanoma survivor who lives in Penticton, B.C., said the program already has 70 salons participating across the country, including 10 in B.C. 

The Canadian Cancer Society estimated that 8,700 people across the country would be diagnosed with melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, in 2021 and around 1,250 Canadians would die of it.

Hairdressers are in a unique situation to spot lesions early in hard-to-see areas, said Barnard. 

“Most skin cancers are in the head, neck and behind-your-ear areas where we don’t usually see — the ones that are most exposed to the sun,” she said.

Brian Dunn, Barnard’s friend and neighbour, was diagnosed with melanoma last summer after his wife noticed a dark patch on his skin while cutting his hair. 

They had Barnard take a look at the patch and she advised him to see a doctor for further tests. 

“It was unbelievable how fast and quick it was. They got me in for surgery … I feel great now,” said Dunn, a retired hairdresser who said he had been checking scalps at work for years. 

“We can see parts of your head that you can’t. When we’re doing colours, perms or cuts, we’re pretty close to your scalp so we can see what’s going on.” 

Motivated in part by Dunn’s experience, Barnard helped to found Sty-Lives in December. 

She said the program does not ask hairdressers to diagnose skin cancer, but rather to alert people that they might need to get tested.

“We just provide all the materials and training we can for those hairdressers and barbers to make sure that their patients are going to have it checked.” 

Registration for the training is free and all hair professionals in Canada are eligible. 

“We’re pretty excited, it’s really gaining momentum and I think we can all just really make a difference,” said Barnard.

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