Rosenblum: Haircut was a lifesaver for this lucky customer

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2012 - 9:45 PM
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Worth 'humongous tips’: Fantastic Sam’s stylist Felicia Reed and customer J.T. Taylor. Thanks to Reed’s diligence, Taylor has a good reason to joke about his new tonsorial appearance.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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You could say that hairstylist Felicia Reed gave J.T. Taylor the kindest cut.

Taylor, 69, of Eden Prairie, comes into the Fantastic Sam's on Pioneer Trail for a trim every few weeks. On June 6, he sat down in Reed's chair for the first time.

Reed, 21, trimmed Taylor's enviably thick head of hair, then made a second pass to review her work. That's when she saw a fleshy little spot with black specs lying flat on the left side of his scalp.

"Are you aware of that?" she asked Taylor.

Taylor was not aware of the spot. But, after a similar scare 20 years ago, he knew it was important to get it checked out fast. A week later, dermatologist Caleb Creswell of Dermatology Specialists did a biopsy.

Melanoma.

A week after that, Taylor was back in Reed's chair for a buzz cut. And a week after that, surgeon Sachin Bhardwaj removed the skin cancer, with Taylor awake but sedated.

"It looked like a scene out of 'Red Dragon'," Taylor joked, referencing the prequel to "Silence of the Lambs. "They pulled, yanked, lifted. 'You guys are really busy up there,'" he told Bhardwaj.

Bhardwaj told him that he was one incredibly lucky guy. The cancer had not spread to his lymph nodes. "Because he was treated so quickly," Bhardwaj said, "the prognosis is excellent. It very easily could have gone the other way."

Reed "broke down" when she heard the outcome of what began as a routine haircut. "If I hadn't double-checked my work, I wouldn't have seen it," she said.

"It's very humbling to think I could do something like that for someone else."

After healing up a bit, the goateed Taylor, sporting a series of dapper caps until his hair grows back, took an extended vacation with his partner Carol Nelson. When they returned, he wanted to give Reed a well-deserved shout-out and encourage others in her industry to be equally alert.

"It's not just an issue for men," he said. "Women spend an awful lot of time in those chairs. [Stylists] need to be willing to say something."

Taylor grew up in the South Pacific, where few people were aware of the dangers of long-term sun exposure. They'd slather on baby oil and sit in the sun, he said, "like chicken on a rotisserie." In 1991, a cancerous spot was successfully removed from Taylor's left shoulder.

Taylor is president and CEO of the WillowHill Group, a consulting company. He has two grown sons. He's also battling prostate cancer.

"Whatever's going to be is going to be," he said. "But you can't wait for it. You have to jump on it."

Men, he said, tend to delay going to the doctor when they suspect something is wrong. "We're wait-and-watch people," he said, or "let-me-take-some-kale" people.

But not just men put off a doctor's visit. He knows a woman who ignored her hairdresser's warning about a suspicious spot. "It cost her her life," Taylor said.

Reed attended New Prague High School, where she ran track and was a cheerleader. She attended Model College of Hair Design in St. Cloud, then returned to New Prague. She commutes to Fantastic Sam's five or six days a week.

In cosmetology school, Reed studied skin conditioning, "but we aren't taught, 'Oh, there's a mole on your head.'"

Fair-skinned herself, Reed has seen a dermatologist, so she's more aware of worrisome signs than others her age.

"I was just so excited she could be such a big part of someone's life," said her manager, Jessika Fischer. Fischer shared Reed's story with her other stylists, encouraging them to be more aware and comfortable speaking up. She'll also talk about it at an upcoming corporate office meeting.

Taylor's partner, Nelson, said she never noticed the spot. She later talked to her own hairdresser, who promised to be more vigilant. "Thank you, Felicia," Nelson said.

Surgeon Bhardwaj agrees that hairstylists are "uniquely positioned to see spots that weren't there the last time, or that have changed in shape or color." While melanoma is found most commonly on the backs of men and on the lower legs of women, the head is not uncommon, he said.

Skin cancer rates are "relatively high" in Minnesota because we love to be outdoors, Bhardwaj said. For more information on sun safety, visit www.aad.org, the website of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Taylor has gifted Reed with flowers, chocolates and "humongous tips." He's a customer for life.

He and Reed had a playful moment with a customer recently. As Reed cut the client's hair, Taylor walked up and pointed to the V-shaped scar on his partially bald head.

"This is what she did to me," he said. "We had fun with that."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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