There are a few things you can always rely on your hairdresser for.
Give you Jessica Biel’s balayage? Check. Steer you away from making a bad hair decision they know you will regret? Check. Filling you in on the juiciest goss they’ve heard on the job? Double check.
But what about potentially saving your life? Melbourne-based hairdresser Merryn Mott can make that claim.
Thanks to the 43-year-old, three clients have been diagnosed and treated for melanoma after Mott noticed strange marks she recommended they have checked.
In 2016 alone, it’s estimated 13,283 Australians will be diagnosed with the skin cancer.
Mott’s knowledge and passion for awareness stems from a horrible day in 2007, when she was diagnosed with an aggressive melanoma herself.
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“I first noticed the mark at the end of 2006. It was the size of a pea and I saw it at the end of work one day and presumed it was a stain from hair dye. It wasn’t there one day and there the next,” the hairdresser of 28 years says.
“I tried to rub it off but it didn’t go, so I assumed it was a stubborn stain that would disappear after a few washes. Days went by and it still hadn’t come off.”
Mott forgot about it, until she went on a family holiday in summer.
“Any time I went in the sun it would get really itchy, so itchy I couldn’t bear it. It looked a bit like a freckle at the start, it didn’t look sinister or anything, then it developed a red shiny patch in the middle,” she says.
If you look closely in the photo above you can see the slightly darker area. Image: Supplied.
Her husband advised they see a doctor when they got home, but almost six months passed before the busy mum had the mark checked.
The dermatologist took one look at it and informed her it needed to be cut out straight away. A small piece was cut out and sent away; a few days later Mott was asked to come in again as soon as possible.
"That really made me panic. I was shocked. I went in and they took a piece of skin the size of a small steak out, and then bunched skin together," she says.
"I couldn't even stretch my skin out properly, it looked like the top of my hand had been cut off. It was so traumatic; as a hairdresser I couldn't use my hand, it was so terrible and painful."
A week went by before Mott received the horrible news. She was diagnosed with progressive and aggressive melanoma that was level two and a half on the Clark scale, meaning there were melanoma cells in the layer directly under the epidermis, or outer layer of skin. (Post continues after gallery.)
She was sent to the Alfred Hospital to meet with a team of plastic surgeons and radiologists to determine the best treatment.
"It was very frightening not knowing which way it was going to go. They then told me they needed to keep cutting it all out until it's gone ... I was relieved no chemo was needed."
Mott was back in three days later to undergo surgery, the first of several over a six-week period. By this time the lesion had grown from pea-sized to the size of a postage stamp.
"I couldn't work between the second and third surgery. It was very stressful; being a mother, you need to be with your children and it kind of made me face my own mortality. I have two daughters, 12 and 18 years old. They're such strong kids, they were fantastic," she says.
"Once surgery was completed I started going to the doctors every month for a full body check, then after three months I went every three months and now I go yearly. They did a great job and my hand is fully functional. I was given the all clear three years ago. I'm definitely one of the lucky ones."
Mott's scar as it currently looks. Image: Supplied
It also opened her eyes to the realities of melanoma, something that's thoroughly benefited those around her.
"All the movies and TV shows make them look they're really festy and disgusting, but it didn't look like that at all. It looked like a flat freckle which made me more confident that I can point them out on clients," she says.
Just three weeks after returning to work after her last surgery, Mott was telling one client about her experience when she noticed a familiar-looking mark on the woman's forehead.
"I was doing her hair and said, 'It kind of looked like that. I don't want to worry you, but maybe you should get it checked out'. She called me a week later and said she'd had it looked at, and found it was melanoma," she recalls.
The client thanked her, explained that her doctors had managed to catch the cancer early.
Realising her other clients might not know the signs or be unable to look at their ears or back of the head, where marks often pop up, Mott started to look more closely at their scalps.
Soon after, another client came in with a "funny sun spot" on her forehead. On Mott's advice, she had it checked and was informed she had a melanoma.
"The first client was in her sixties, not sun-loving at all, so it's not just people who send time sun baking who are affected. The second lady was in her late forties and she was a nurse, inside all the time. Even she said she thought she would have noticed it," she says.
"Then it happened again to a third client. Every time it happens it makes me more confident. Obviously I'm not a doctor, but I can use my past experience to help them to get it checked out."
Now Mott is doing her best to keep an eye on all her clients.
"Even after the second time cutting someone's hair I will notice the change. When I'm recording the colour work if I do notice a spot, I will document it and what it looks like so we can check it next time. As a hairdresser it's more than doing their hair, we're looking after them," she says.
"Fortunately there are times when it turns out to be nothing, but also people who don't get it checked. That's the hard part, when you alert them and advise them and they don't take your advice."
Her colleagues at Revolutions Hair and Beauty Studio have also started to take note, with another fellow hairdresser alerting an older male client to a skin change that turned out to be aggressive melanoma.
Mott believes it's something all hairdressers need to be more aware of.
"I'm also a teacher, so I tell students about my experiences so they can carry it on. It's our duty to look out for our clients and we can keep an eye on skin changes on the forehead, behind the ears and around the scalp which aren't easy spots to check yourself," she says.
"It's such a good feeling to know you've helped them, particularly if you nip it in the bud."
Have you had a similar experience?
Melanoma: What to look for
Melanomas can be diagnosed using the ABCDE method:
• A - Asymmetry
• B - Border irregularity
• C - Colour variation
• D - Diameter (usually over 6mm)
• E - Evolution (change and growing larger)
Non-melanoma skin cancers can be pink, red, pigmented or skin coloured and scaly. They are commonly found on sun exposed sites like the face including lips and ears, neck and backs of hands. Important signs include:
• Changes in size, shape or elevation
PROTECTING YOUR SKIN
• Use a broad spectrum sunscreen that provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
• Wear a hat, protective clothing and sunglasses.
• Check the UV alert applicable for your location on the Sunsmart app
• Avoid sunburn when walking, running, gardening, playing cricket, relaxing at the beach or during any outdoor activity
For more information can be found here.