Alert hair colorist discovers early-stage cancer on client’s scalp – Cleveland Jewish News

Over 14 years of getting her hair colored with red highlights at the same hair salon, Ichiban Salon & Day Spa in Westlake, Eileen Korey came to know her hair colorist, Kari Phillips, well. So when Phillips spotted a new, irregular spot on the back of Korey’s scalp, she knew to point it out.

“When she showed it to me, to be honest, my heart sunk,” Korey said.

Korey, 62, a Rocky River resident and longtime reporter and communications specialist in the Cleveland-area, said she immediately made an appointment with her dermatologist, Dr. Pamela Davis at MetroHealth. Davis ordered a biopsy and Korey said waiting for the results was “excruciating.” While it led her to some ill-advised internet searches that scared her even more, she got lucky.

Korey, a member of Beth Israel-The West Temple in Cleveland, found out that although the spot was a melanoma, a type of skin cancer, it was stage-zero or a “melanoma in situ.” It can be cured via surgery.

“This is really early,” said Dr. Bruce Averbook, Korey’s surgical oncologist at MetroHealth. “Survival is really 100 percent basically if treated.”

However, without the help of Korey’s hairdresser, such may not have been the case. Averbook, a member of Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike, said while melanomas can take years to advance, more advanced melanomas can be life threatening and spots like Korey’s are easy to miss if they are somewhere like the scalp.

Moreover, Korey is not the first patient Averbook has seen whose hair professional found a crucial scalp change. He described another patient whose barber found a slightly more advanced lesion and said there have been several other cases.



The spot Eileen Korey’s hairdresser, Kari Phillips, found during a regular hair coloring appointment that she advised Korey to get checked out. It turned out to be an early-stage melanoma. 

Phillips said because her sister is a dermatology nurse, she has been aware that it’s “part of my job” to check for differences, including lesions, spots, moles or any injury, on clients’ scalps. Moreover, since she colors Korey’s hair about every three weeks, she knew immediately something was different.

“When I told her about it, I knew right away that she would talk to her dermatologist and get it checked out because that’s the type of person she is,” Phillips said.

While Phillips said she understands it can be uncomfortable to point out such a potential problem to a client one may not know as well, she still said it’s important to speak out and, in turn, the client’s responsibility to be receptive. 

“I just want clients obviously to be aware of it – we want to help you and just be open if anyone ever tells you anything, it’s hopefully for your own good,” she said.

Davis also said hairdressers are more aware now compared to when she started her practice 29 years ago to look for such issues. She also said even if patients do visit a dermatologist regularly, scalp issues are difficult to find and a stylist’s role could be crucial.

“The good hairdressers are telling their patients that they should have things looked at,” Davis said.

For Korey, it’s equally important to speak out so others know the power hairdressers have to identify possible trouble spots on the scalp, and the importance of early detection. She also said immediately after getting the spot checked out, she bought a hat to wear when she’s out in the sun.

“Knowledge is power and ignorance is not bliss,” she said. “If somebody is going to give me knowledge to use, how fabulous is that?”

Davis added that although hair helps protect from sun damage, melanomas often affect parts of bodies where sun does not directly hit. However, getting too much sun in general contributes to incidence of melanomas anywhere (other forms of skin cancers, that sometimes coexist with melanomas, do in fact affect areas that get sun exposure at a higher rate). Thus, it’s important to be vigilant and cover up in the sun.

On Aug. 7, Korey will undergo surgery to the affected area, requiring only local anesthesia and sedative. Although she will need regular exams from Davis, Averbook said Korey’s wound should heal easily.

Also, although Averbook will have to shave around the spot, it will likely be small enough that Korey can flip her hair over to hide it. Thus, soon enough, she will be back in Phillips’s chair.

“The line of my life will be the advantage of not going gray is the early detection of cancer,” Korey said.