One of Skin Cancer's Hidden Spots

by Cori Linder

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Image source: iStockPhotos

Amid the warnings to keep your skin coated in sunscreen, wear appropriate clothing, and watch for questionable freckles, there are still cases of melanoma that would have been hard to prevent.

One of the most common places for skin cancer is on the human scalp. It is also one of the least diagnosed. Under all our crazy hair styles, there might lurk a spot or a tumor that can be cancerous. I know this, because it happened to me. 

 Let me preface the following by saying that I was initially hesitant to write this article. It’s not easy disclosing to the public that I had a cancerous growth on the top of my head. I mean, it’s not like telling only close friends and family; it’s announcing my sensitive issue to the world via the Internet. 

But then, my conversation with another mother changed my perspective and inspired this article. In fact, I now feel compelled to write it.

To summarize: This mom took her daughter into the hair salon; the girl wanted hair highlights for her 13th birthday. The hairstylist noticed a suspicious spot on the girl’s scalp and advised that she have it looked at by a doctor. The biopsy showed stage IV melanoma.

The mom shared that if she had not taken her young daughter to the hair salon that day, her daughter could have died. And, she’s right. I mean, how often do we as moms comb through our teenagers’ hair? We trust our children to take care of their own hair, even though it can be a struggle to get them to wash it often enough.  So, how else would the cancer have been spotted? 

As our children become older, we study their scalps less and less. Many of us are diligent with making sure kids wear sunscreen, but we somehow trust hair to be “enough” in terms of protecting their heads from the sun. After all, if we can’t see their scalp under all that hair, how can the sun?

[Read: "AAP Stresses Importance of Sun Protection for Babies"]

It’s not enough, however, because if it was, thousands of people would not be dying from skin cancer on the scalp every year. In fact, according to Science Daily, the most lethal melanomas are found on the scalp and the neck, and people who have melanomas in those places “die at nearly twice the rate of people with melanoma elsewhere on the body, including the face or ears.”

I have had a chance to frequently talk about this with my dermatologist during my post-cancer follow-up appointments. And while I’m blessed that he was able to successfully remove all of it, I am still haunted by the fact that he was not the one who discovered it. There was ample chance. Since melanoma runs on both sides of my family and I’m now in my mid-30s, I had been receiving skin check-ups every three months as a precaution. Every visit, he had examined my entire body, but not my scalp. I had never even thought to request that he do so.

It was during a family vacation when my husband asked me what was protruding from my head. “I think it’s a blister or pimple,” I had told him. “Whenever I pop it, it just bleeds. But, it never goes away.” It was raised a quarter of an inch and, knowing that it wasn't a mole, I had naturally assumed it was something minor. I had kept up with my dermatology appointments, and my hair stylist hadn't commented on it. It didn't hurt. I couldn't even see it. Why worry?

So imagine my surprise when I pointed it out to my doctor, thinking it needed only powerful zit cream ointment and learning instead that it was skin cancer that had a high probability of being melanoma. It wasn't, thank goodness, but the word “cancer” is still mighty scary. Feeling the doctor insert a needle into my head, cut out the growth, and then cauterize the skin wasn't much fun either.

The cause of the cancer: sun exposure. The date of impact: I’ll never know. Maybe it was lying out in my backyard as a teenager. Maybe it was during a family beach trip. And then again, maybe it’s just years of exposing my head to the sun. I do know that it had been on my head for quite a while. When I told my hairstylist about it, she said, "Oh! I had noticed it at your last few hair appointments, but I just figured it was a blister or scar." So had I, apparently.

The point is that I know better now. Even though I can’t change the past, I know that I can protect myself in the future…and my children. I looked up pictures of common skin cancers so that I could spot (pardon the pun) them in the future. Early detection is powerful.

The question that many moms ask is, how do we protect our kids’ heads? We can’t necessarily lather sunscreen on their hair every day or keep them out of the sun. But what we can do is start them at a very early age wearing a hat. And I’m not talking about a visor or a ball cap that has a type of mesh in the back allowing sun to penetrate through. Even with a ball cap, the ears and neck are still exposed. I’m referring rather to a hat that fully covers the head and includes a brim. It may not be pretty or in vogue, but it’s life-saving.

[Read: "Hats for the Beach"]

For some children (and moms!), wearing a hat might be considered a nuisance. It might mess up the hair or make the head sweat, but consider the alternative. According to Cancer.org,“more than 2 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are found” in the United States, and melanoma will result in 75,000 cases of skin cancer this year.

Also, as noted on the SkinCancer.org website, one in five Americans “will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime,” and “90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.” The inconvenience of wearing a hat is so small in comparison to the benefits of protecting one’s self. This includes wearing a cap when swimming. Believe me, your child will get used to it. And so will you.

Based on my family history, where I live, how I grew up as a competitive swimmer, and the fact that I’m an “outdoors” type of gal, I have accepted the fact that this year’s skin cancer will most likely not be an isolated case. It’s only a matter of time. But I know that future protection and early detection can lessen its destructive impact, and that’s enough motivation for me to cover up.

As noted earlier, this article was a difficult one to write. I am sure that many of us have lost a loved one to cancer, including melanoma. I know I have. It’s ugly, and it’s traumatic. And though I’m a writer, I will never be able to sufficiently write about cancer’s devastating impact on people.   

And yet, despite this heavy topic, I am inspired too; it’s why I share my story. My skin cancer incidence was a real wake-up call to improve the way I live. I can no longer ask: Why me? My question really has to become: Why NOT me? Nobody is too young or too healthy to experience cancer. In fact, I knew an 8-year-old girl with skin cancer on her eyelid.

In my opinion, knowledge is very empowering; it’s a gift. It is so enlightening to know that this type of cancer can, in many cases and for many people, be prevented--with simple things. A tube of sunscreen. Clothing. An umbrella. And yes, it’s annoying to wear a floppy hat or chase our kids down to slop on sunscreen, but believe me, it’s worth it. 

Wear a strong sunscreen. Avoid the tanning beds. Wear sunglasses. Find shade. Wear a hat. We all know this; we've heard it a zillion times, and I know that I haven’t told you anything new. And yet, many of us still don’t do it, and if we do, it’s on an inconsistent basis. I think there’s still a common misconception that skin cancer only happens to “old” people or to those who bake in tanning beds or wear oil on their skin or stand in the sun all day. But like almost any cancer, skin cancer sometimes happens to the person who least expects it -- like me. 

[Read: "What Do Tanning Beds Do To You"]

Annually visit a dermatologist and, if you are predisposed to cancer, get skin checkups two or three times a year. I asked my pediatrician when I should start taking my sons in for skin exams. When they’re teenagers, he told me. In the meantime, always keep a close eye on any abnormal-looking moles or spots or lumps on your children’s skin. What is especially troubling to me is that many of us take our kids to dermatologists to treat acne and yet, we don’t request an overall skin examination for cancer.

It is my hope that anybody reading this article will be motivated to look closer at what can hide under the hair--of both herself and her children--on a consistent basis. I don’t want this article to scare you or cause anxiety. Just watching the evening news on TV for a half hour is enough to depress anybody. I want it to instead enlighten and empower you to stand guard and keep watch regarding your family’s skin.

There’s so much good that we can do in terms of protection, prevention, and early detection regarding skin cancer. Just because our hair hides most of our scalp, that doesn't mean the skin there is not vulnerable. Out of sight should not be out of mind.

Sometimes it can be something as seemingly mundane as a hair stylist's casual remark about the scalp that can end up saving a person’s life. How profound, indeed.

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About the Writer: Cori is a professional editor and the Featured Blogger for Modern Mom. Email her at editorcori@gmail.com or follow her on  Twitter. She is also co-authoring a book about living the adventure of Art Deco in Los Angeles. Check out the blog

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