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Skin Cancer Detection By Massage Therapists And Allied Health Professionals

3 Sep 2015
Randall Cooper
Skin cancer is a problem in Australia. The Cancer Council of Australia reports that in Australia 80% of newly diagnosed cancers are skin cancers, and that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before they reach 70.

General Practitioners have over 1 million consultations per year for skin cancer, however it’s usually the individual them self or other people who initially notice changes in the skin and suspicious lesions. A study published in 2011 reported that with training, hairdressers may be able successfully recognize suspicious lesions (1). The results of this study lead to another study (2) being published last year, this time educating massage therapists about skin cancer detection and prevention by the World Skin Project (WSP).

Massage therapists were selected as they visualize and feel large areas of the skin that may be overlooked by other health professionals. Massage therapists are also uniquely well positioned to assess for changes of the skin as they see clients on a regular basis. In the study, 114 students and massage therapists from the USA underwent a 4-hour education session, and completed pre and posttest assessments of images of skin lesions.

The majority of therapists were able to correctly identify suspicious skin lesions on both the pre and posttest assessments, and there was a greatly improved ability of the respondents to identify at least 3 of the 5 ABCDEs for melanoma detection (34.2% pre and 87.7% posttest). The ABCDEs for melanoma detection are as follows: 

  • Asymmetry
  • Borders (irregular)
  • Color (variegated)
  • Diameter (greater than 6mm)
  • Evolving over time


Picture: Melanoma

Although many therapists were able to identify a suspicious lesion at pretest, there was no improvement in the group at posttest. In fact there was a decrease in the number of therapists who correctly identified a normal nevus, suggesting the training may increase concern and lead to unnecessary of benign lesions.

The authors concluded while many massage therapists are educated on skin cancer and have experience referring patients for suspicious lesions, a 4-hour educational session may not be sufficient to improve sensitivity of detection.

In my own practice I would advise at least 2-3 of my patients each year to have suspicious lesions checked over by their GP. Many do not end up having skin cancer, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. I’d encourage all massage therapists and other allied health professionals to take a similar approach.

For further information on how to detect a skin cancer, the Cancer Council of Australia has an informative skin cancer identification poster.

Stay sunsmart people.

(1) Bailey EE, Marghoob AA, Orengo IF et al (2011) Skin cancer knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors in the salon: a survey of working hair professionals in Houston, Texas. Arch Dermatol 147(10):1159–1165

(2) Trotter SC, Louie-Gao Q, Hession MT, Cummins D (2014) Skin Cancer Education for Massage Therapists: A Novel Approach to the Early Detection of Suspicious Lesions. J Cancer Educ 29(2):266-269.

(3) Campbell SM, Louie-Gao Q, Hession ML, Bailey E, Geller AC, Cummins D (2012) Skin cancer education among massage therapists: a survey at the 2010 meeting of the American Massage Therapy Association. J Cancer Educ 28(1):158–164.

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