Christina Boyd

Stylist Christina Boyd at the Hair Estate in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Jason Smith; (c)2007 Endeavors

Cut, color and cancer prevention

When UNC researchers realized that cancer incidence and death rates are disproportionately higher among black women, they wondered how to get the word out about cancer prevention. Instead of waiting for these women to come to the doctor’s office, Dr. Laura Linnan, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Public Health, decided to go to them where they were already comfortable talking about their health and asking for advice – the beauty salon.

Linnan’s North Carolina BEAUTY (Bringing Education And Understanding To You) Project used hairstylists to share information with their customers about how to prevent colorectal cancer.

“They feel comfortable talking to me,” says Christina Boyd, a stylist who owns the Hair Estate in Durham. “They tell me things they don’t even tell their husbands or doctors or best friends.”

In a 2002 study, researchers at UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center surveyed 40 local salons frequented by black women, finding that about 75 percent of salon customers visit their stylist once every four weeks and about 17 percent visit at least once a week. Many spend more than two hours per visit — partly to have their hair done, partly to chat with their stylists.

Building on their findings, researchers asked these salons to participate in BEAUTY, a four-year health and cancer intervention study in salons in eight North Carolina counties. Most of the stylists were excited about the project, Linnan says. They also preferred messages that were easy to communicate.

So researchers kept the messages simple: eat three to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, engage in physical activity for at least 30 minutes most days, talk with your doctor about personal risks for cancer and recommended cancer-screening tests, and dial 1-800-4-CANCER to get more information.

They put these messages on interactive display boards in each salon, changing the displays once every three months. Each board had a picture of the stylist and a quote, such as, “Ask me how you can maintain a healthy weight!”

The displays included quick tips on lowering fat intake; a scale that customers could use to estimate their body mass index and small pockets containing brochures, activity calendars and other materials customers could take home with them.

“The displays were there so customers would get curious and start asking their stylists about what they saw,” Carlisle says. “We’ve trained the stylists on these health messages, so they can share them with their customers.”

Preliminary results indicate that in all of the salons, there was a modest increase in the number of health conversations customers had with their stylists, in self-reported physical activity, and in self-reported cancer screening tests such as mammograms, Pap tests, and colonoscopies. Almost all of the salon owners said that all salons should offer programs such as BEAUTY.

There are more than 12,000 licensed salons in North Carolina alone, Linnan says. If BEAUTY succeeds, stylists could become health promoters, communicating messages of health in salons all over the state.

“Now we need to find the right methods and the right amount of information to ensure these efforts are effective in producing health behavior changes,” Linnan says. “Once we identify highly effective programs, we can disseminate them widely here in North Carolina and beyond.”

Based on 'Parlor Talk,' by Margarita De Pano, Winter 2007 Endeavors.

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