Thu, 6 Sep, 2018Over60

How a manicure could save your life

How a manicure could save your life

Sarah Burrows was having her usual monthly manicure when the beauty therapist doing her nails casually asked about a mole on her chest.

Burrows had been ignoring it for months, thinking there was nothing particularly unusual about it, but the fact that her beautician had noticed it – and was concerned enough to bring it up – took her by surprise.

She felt compelled to get it checked out by her GP, starting a chain of events that would lead to her being diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

"If it hadn't been brought to my attention, I don't think that I would have ever done anything about it," says Burrows, 52. "It's hard to think that I could be telling a completely different story now if I hadn't had that conversation while getting my nails done."

Burrows, a marriage guidance counsellor from Macclesfield, Cheshire, UK, had been a regular visitor to the clinic of holistic beauty therapist Lucy Dempster for nearly five years. It was in January last year, while she was wearing a slightly lower-cut top than normal, that Dempster spotted the mole on her chest.

Burrows recalls: "She really gently said that she had been doing some training on skin cancer and perhaps I should get it checked out. She reassured me that, of course, if it was nothing then I would only have taken up maybe five minutes of a doctor's time."

Dempster recognised the mole as she had recently taken part in a pilot training course designed to help beauty, hair and skincare professionals spot skin cancer. Launched in the UK in January this year, the Masced training scheme (short for Melanoma and Skin Cancer Early Detection) aims to improve early diagnosis rates based on the assumption that many people get their hair or nails done more frequently than they see a family doctor.

Through a professionally accredited, 45-minute online course, beauty professionals are trained in the warning signs and given advice on how to bring up concerns tactfully with clients. While they are not expected to diagnose the disease, they can suggest someone visits their GP to get checked out.

Skin cancer is on the rise in Britain, with the incidence of melanoma soaring by 128 per cent in the past 20 years. Experts have put the rise down to the growing popularity of cheap package holidays to sunny destinations, as well as a boom in sunbed use in the '70s, '80s and '90s.

Melanoma is now the fifth most common cancer in the UK and one of the most common among 15- to 34-year-olds. Most melanoma cases occur in the over-85s, who have had a lifetime of exposure to the sun, and rates are expected to rise by another 7 per cent by 2035 as the population ages.

While incidence of skin cancer has seen similar growth in other Western countries in recent decades, the UK has slightly higher mortality rates, with 2.6 deaths per 100,000 people compared to the European average of 2.2. Lower survival rates have been partly blamed on a tendency to diagnose cancers later in the UK – something the Masced scheme aims to combat.

The project is the brainchild of Claire Dale, of cancer charity Skcin, who came up with the idea after her mother died of malignant melanoma aged 63.

"My mother was really into beauty and health and fitness so she was always in the gym or at the salon, but rarely went to the doctor," she says.

"No-one ever noticed the mole she had on her abdomen until it was too late. That got me thinking about whether the kind of professionals she saw all the time could be trained to spot skin cancer in otherwise healthy people. If Masced had been around then, her mole might have been seen in time and her life could have been saved."

While it was sadly too late for Dale's mother, the scheme is already saving lives. Burrows, a mother-of-two herself, saw her GP after speaking to Dempster and was referred to a specialist. He diagnosed the mark on her chest as a basal cell carcinoma, a type of tumour that occurs in eight out of 10 skin cancer cases and rarely spreads.

While that was easily treatable with a chemotherapy cream, the doctor found another suspicious mark on the back of her left thigh. "He asked how long I'd had the mark for and I said: 'What mark?' When was the last time you looked at the back of your own legs? I had no idea it was there," she says.

A biopsy revealed it was a malignant melanoma – a spreading form of skin cancer that kills six people every day in the UK. Burrows went in for surgery to have it removed, only for doctors to find yet another malignant tumour on her other leg. She was referred to The Christie cancer hospital in Manchester for tests on her lymph node to check whether the cancer had spread. Luckily, biopsies showed she was all clear.

"On both occasions, it was caught before it had spread throughout the rest of my body, which they say it probably would have done had it been ignored any longer," Burrows says. She sighs as she imagines what the outcome might have been had Dempster not spotted the original mole.

"It was one of those chance conversations with somebody who had been told to keep an eye out. The mole didn't have any of the signs you normally read about – it wasn't bleeding, itchy or uneven. It was only because somebody else mentioned it that made me do something about it."

Ironically, Burrows is always careful in the sun as she is quite fair-skinned and doesn't tan. Doctors believe most of the damage was probably done before she reached puberty and she blames it on an incident of being badly sunburnt as a young child.

"It was my seventh birthday and I was in Cornwall. I remember it because it was my birthday so I was supposed to be happy, but I was so sunburnt, I was just crying," she says.

"I've since spoken to my mother and aunts and uncles and they have all said suncreams just weren't around nearly as much back then. In fact, I remember my mother putting olive oil on, which seems like really crazy behaviour now."

Dempster, 49, plays down her role in saving Burrows's life, but agrees that the training could protect hundreds of lives nationwide. Although she runs her clinic single-handedly from her home near Wilmslow, Cheshire, she has already helped four clients who have received treatment for suspected tumours.

She says: "If it makes that much difference with just one person, imagine how much of an impact it can have if everyone in a busy salon is trained."​

Written by Rosie Taylor. Republished by permission of