Note: this post was authored by Taylor Tomko, Director of Special Projects at SYSF
This month, we are continuing to recruit hairstylists and barbers for our Sty-Lives initiative! Sty-Lives empowers hairdressers to be able to detect suspicious skin lesions on the ears, face and scalp of their clients, facilitating communication between the client and their healthcare provider and leading to earlier detection of potentially dangerous skin cancers. We were recently reminded of the importance of checking the scalp through our community member, Iveta Voll, who unfortunately lost her husband, Steve, in November 2022 to melanoma that initially manifested on his scalp. Recently, I had a call with Iveta, in which we discussed her and Steve’s experience with melanoma and the importance of programs like Sty-Lives.
In November 2019, Steve discovered a scab-like growth on his scalp that he had not previously noticed due to its location. The spot at this point of discovery was already black and large, about the size of a two-dollar coin. After his dermatologist took a biopsy, the spot came back as melanoma that was too deep to be surgically removed. The melanoma had already moved into his lungs, making it stage 4. Steve was immediately referred to a hospital oncologist, and soon began receiving targeted pill therapy to which he had a dramatically positive response. By his next CT scan three months later, all of Steve’s melanoma lesions had vanished. Unfortunately, this treatment does not have a long duration of response, and it only worked for Steve for 14 months.
Once Steve’s melanoma began to return, he began an immunotherapy treatment, followed by another targeted pill therapy, neither of which had positive results. At this point, it was spring 2022. Steve and Iveta were devastated, as the only option left for Steve was a drug trial, hopefully at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. After about a month or so of excruciating waiting, Steve was enrolled in a phase I drug trial, which began just after Thanksgiving 2022. However, this trial meant that Iveta and Steve would have to relocate from Kitchener to Toronto while Steve received the drug. Travelling in four-day cycles between Kitchener and Toronto was challenging for Steve, who had begun to have difficulties catching his breath and an elevated heart rate. A special CT scan showed that he had developed blood clots in his lungs from the cancer. Soon afterwards, it was discovered that Steve’s melanoma had metastasized from his lungs to his liver and was growing very rapidly.
At this point, Steve was told that he unfortunately could not continue in this trial due to the extremely fast-growingmelanoma in his liver. Feeling like they were now truly out of options, Iveta and Steve returned home and updated their local oncologist. It was now early November 2022. At this appointment, Steve was given the devastating prognosis of weeks to months. At the end of that same week, Steve woke up struggling to breathe and his heart rate was extremely high. Iveta called an ambulance, and Steve was admitted to the hospital with a fever, which was likely related to the liver metastasis. Steve stayed in the hospital for five days, spending much time with Iveta, their son, Aaron, and his immediate family. Little did they know that the prognosis of weeks to months would turn out to be just seven short days later; Steve passed away very suddenly on November 8th, 2022 in the hospital surrounded by his loved ones. He and Iveta had been married for 27 years.
Since Steve’s passing, Iveta has started volunteering and is eager to get involved with melanoma-related causes. She, like many of us who have been touched by cancer, wants to ensure that others don’t go through the same painful experience as them. Because Steve’s melanoma appeared on his scalp, she is especially passionate about the Sty-Lives initiative. “Skin cancer is so preventable, and hairdressers can save lives, there’s no doubt about it,” Iveta says, “people visit a hairdresser more often than they visit their family doctor.” Iveta and I talked about the Sty-Lives program at length, including how hairdressers can take on responsibility by having Sty-Lives training, how they can move past any feelings of awkwardness, and how visitors to hair salons can encourage their stylists to get involved. Importantly, as Iveta and I discussed, we are not encouraging hairstylists to try to be doctors or to try to diagnose. Simply alerting their clients of any questionable moles they see on their scalp is sufficient. As Iveta said, “just mention to your client that there’s a suspicious mole(s) on their scalp that they may want to get checked out by a doctor. That’s it. You don’t have to say [whether you] think it’s cancerous or not. Let the client go off and get it explored.”
I raised the question to Iveta about stylists who, for whatever reason, might feel uncomfortable bringing up a mole to their clients. Iveta indicated that the picture is bigger than that, as a hairdresser speaking up could potentially be lifesaving. “I don’t think people are going to get upset if you tell them about a questionable mole or a lesion… I think ninety-nine percent of people would be so thankful,” adding that “it’s better to say more than less.” Hairdressers are, of course, also welcome to ask their clients if they are interested in a mole check at the beginning of the service, to get a sense of whether certain clients will be receptive to it. Iveta asserted that she would certainly be pleased if a hairdresser suggested a mole check during an appointment: “I think if my hairdresser [asked to check my scalp for moles] I would be so impressed. I would give them an extra tip!”
Iveta also brought up the possibility, as citizens who are aware of melanoma, of being proactive with our hairstylists. In addition to mentioning the Sty-Lives initiative to our hairdressers, we can also ask them to keep an eye out for scalp moles during our appointments. “Ask your hairdresser—don’t wait for them,” Iveta suggested, adding that “once that customer asks their hairdresser to check their scalp, guess what? That hairdresser might start doing it for others.” Spreading the word this way, even if hairstylists don’t sign up for the Sty-Lives program, is still extremely beneficial. As Iveta points out, “it’s an issue of awareness, as most people don’t know they can get deadly skin cancer on their scalp.”
Iveta and I finished off our discussion by talking about how to get our own hairstylists involved. If you are reading this and considering mentioning the program to your hairdresser, we encourage you to do so! If they are interested, you can send their contact information to a member of the SYSF team and we will do the rest. We are also currently running the #HairHeroes challenge, where stylists can submit photos or videos of them performing a skin check to be shared on social media. Thank you all for reading and thank you so much to Iveta for her time, thoughts, and support.