Health & Wellness

How my hair stylist saved my life

In early June, Eileen Korey visited Kari Phillips, her longtime colorist, for a touch up. As Phillips was sectioning her client's hair for the color, she noticed a mark on the back of Korey's head.

“Did you hit your head?” Phillips asked. “I see something here and I don’t like what I see."

Phillips snapped a photo and showed it to Korey, a former TV health reporter in Cleveland.

“It was very frightening looking. Even though she said it was less than the size of a dime, it varied in color and it had varied edges. It looked like a bruise and it was flat and not raised,” Korey told TODAY.

Phillips colors Korey's hair every three weeks and knew that that spot hadn't been there before.

Courtesy Eileen Korey
When Eileen Korey was getting her hair colored, her stylist, Kari Phillips noticed a new spot on Korey's head. She took a picture, which encouraged Korey to see her doctor, when Korey learned it was melanoma.

Phillips’ sister works as a dermatology nurse so the hair stylist at Ichiban Salon in Westlake, Ohio knows to check for unusual spots when working with her clients. Most people don’t inspect the backs of their heads.

“They have no clue what is going on,” Phillips told TODAY. “I am always looking.”

Korey visited her dermatologist right away for a biopsy.

“I got pretty scared,” she said. “The wait for the pathology is excruciating.”

Korey was diagnosed with in situ melanoma, which is stage zero — when the cancer hasn’t grown beyond the top layer of the skin.

“If I have to have melanoma this is the best one to have. It was just this incredible sigh of relief,” she said.

Korey's mole fit right into the ABCDE warning signs of melanoma:

  • A — Asymmetrical appearances
  • B — Poorly-defined, scalloped, or unusual borders
  • C — Spots with varying colors of brown, tan, and black or white, blue, and red
  • D — Spots larger than a pencil eraser
  • E — Spots that evolve in size, shape, or color

The American Academy of Dermatology urges anyone with moles that show these signs to see a doctor.

Courtesy Eileen Korey
Since learning she had melanoma on her scalp, Eileen Korey has been wearing hats.

In August, a surgeon will remove the spot from her scalp and Korey should be cancer free. Since Phillips found the melanoma, Korey has been wearing hats.

“We are under the impression that our hair protects us,” she said. “We just don’t think about it.”

Don't forget your scalp

Dr. Adam Friedman, who did not treat Korey, agrees that people often forget to protect their scalps.

“People just don’t consider it,” said Friedman, an associate professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “It is tough to either apply sunscreen to the scalp or always wear a hat, but both are important.”

Friedman says that Korey did the right thing by visiting her doctor immediately after noticing the change.

“Early identification increases the likelihood of better outcomes,” he said.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, but if caught early, the survival rate is over 90 percent, said Friedman.

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See Matt Lauer get a skin cancer check (you should get one too)

Play Video - 2:38

See Matt Lauer get a skin cancer check (you should get one too)

Play Video - 2:38

Friedman often recommends his patients use spray sunscreen on their scalps because it isn’t as messy as a lotion.

“Check yourself, check your partner, but there is a bigger picture involved — if you see something say something,” he said. “Hairdressers have a real opportunity to get elbow deep in an area that is hard for us to see."

Korey feels grateful that Phillips spoke up.

“I called Kari again and said, ‘Thank God you found this! You really did save my life,’” Korey said.

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