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National melanoma screening calls as hairdressers trained to detect suspicious spots

26 Jun 2024
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This article was written and published by ABC Newcastle / Laurise Dickson and Toby Hemmings for NewcastleCast
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Salons Operations Manager Kira Eacott found a melanoma on her arm after taking a skin awareness course. (ABC Newcastle: Laurise Dickson)

When Just Cuts Hunter Salons Operations Manager, Kira Eacott, signed up for a free course on understanding skin cancer, she didn't expect to find a suspicious spot on her skin.

"There was a picture in the course that looked very similar to the one I had on my arm," Mrs Eacott said.

"I've never had a skin check before this, and I'm quite a freckly person, so I do have quite a lot of spots to look at."

Barbers and beauticians are being drafted by medical professionals to help detect melanomas earlier by checking their clients' skin.

These skin cancer courses are being rolled out as melanoma charities advocate for a national skin screening program.

Our national cancer

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, almost 17,000 Australians will be diagnosed with melanoma this year.

That's one person every 30 minutes.  

"The statistics tell us that two in three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before they turn 75," said Claudia Tolhurst, executive officer at the Hunter Melanoma Foundation.

It's known as our national cancer because we lead the world."

Despite the high rate of diagnosis, 90 per cent of melanomas can be treated successfully if caught early.

Ms Tolhurst believes there are positive signs that awareness is increasing in the Hunter New England Local Health District.

"Melanoma is the second most diagnosed cancer [in the district], sitting behind prostate cancer," she said.

"Interestingly, though, it's not in the top five common causes of cancer deaths.

 "That tells us that improved treatments in melanoma are having an impact on survival, but also that early detection is saving lives."

More than 90 per cent of melanomas can be treated successfully if found early. (ABC News: Peter Gunders)

Spotting suspect spots in the salon

Skin awareness courses are available to people in face-to-face service industries, like hairdressers, tattooists and beauticians.

Maureen Harding is the national president and chair of Hair and Beauty Australia and has been in the industry for more than 40 years.

"We get to know people's ears and necks, and we see them before anyone sees them," she said. 

Hairdressers like Mrs Eacott are trained to closely look at the scalp as they section or wash a client's hair.

"When you run the comb through the hair, you might feel a little bump on the skin, and it automatically makes you look," Mrs Eacott said.

"You're then looking at any discolouration of the skin, any marks or dryness around it."

In the past year and a half, more than 880 students have enrolled in the course that Mrs Eacott did through the Skin Cancer College of Australasia.

There are similar courses across the country, such as Spot the Spot, offered as a micro skill through TAFE NSW.

Ms Harding believes skin cancer awareness programs are making a real difference.

"[One participant] had two clients with a bit of a funny marking that came back positive," she said.

"It's not diagnostic, but an awareness skill."

Given the importance of early detection, advocates like Ms Tolhurst and the Hunter Melanoma Foundation are calling for a nationally standardised screening program.

"We have screening programs for breast cancer, bowel cancer and prostate cancer, but there's no screening program at the moment for melanoma," Ms Tolhurst said.

"We're working to try and introduce that so that it's more equitable and more accessible for people to go and get a skin check."

Through skin awareness courses, hairdressers learn to have conversations with clients about their skin. (ABC Newcastle: Laurise Dickson)

Staying aware of skin safety

Back in her salon 12 months after her own early detection, Mrs Eacott has been fortunate.

The melanoma on her arm was easily removed.

"I was quite glad and relieved that they found it and were able to take it off," she said.

"They took quite a good chunk out. It almost looked like a little bite out of my arm — nine stitches."

She is now having honest conversations about skin health with her clients and family members.

"My dad had never been checked, so it prompted him to go and get checked, and he's had quite a few spots burnt off," Mrs Eacott said.

"You're not going to frighten anybody into thinking that they've got something that they don't have.

"It's just bringing that awareness around it."

Since Kira Eacott's surgery, her family have been encouraged to go and get skin checks.(Supplied: Kira Eacott)

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