His Comb-over Could Have Killed Him

His Comb-over Could Have Killed Him

Gene Keady in his comb-over heyday, as coach of Purdue playing against Detroit Mercy in November 2004. (Photo by Sporting News/Getty Images)

For years, basketball coach Gene Keady sported a comb-over as he stood on the sidelines for the Purdue Boilermakers. And for years, he paid $600 a week to keep his hairstyle in good shape — complete with hair extensions to keep his locks comb-over-able.

“It was ugly,” he told the Indy Star. “Everyone was always asking, ‘What is it? Why are you doing it?’ I did it because I was on TV. I did it because I was going bald. I thought I looked gorgeous with the comb-over. Of course, it was very ugly.”

But the hair wasn’t just ugly. It was dangerous.

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Keady and his comb-over speak with John Wooden following Purdue’s 86-84 win over Louisville in Indianapolis in November 2002.(Photo by Darron Cummings/AP Photo) 

A year after he and his wife, Kathleen Petrie, were married, she finally convinced Keady to get rid of the comb-over. In fact, she buzzed it off herself in January 2013. And when she finished with the electric razor, she discovered something alarming beneath Keady’s infamous hair.

“Squamous cell carcinoma,” Kathleen said. “It’s possible he wouldn’t be here today if he’d kept that hair.”

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Keady, finally sans comb-over, at the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in November 2013. (Photo by Colin E. Braley/AP Photo) 

Keady’s form of skin cancer is the second most common, with 700,000 cases diagnosed annually in the United States alone, and occasionally fatal at 9,000 deaths per year. In fact, 2 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer nationwide every year. Although it can be found virtually anywhere on the body, skin cancer is particularly dangerous if it’s lurking on your scalp and out of sight, like Keady’s was. 

Jessica Weiser, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at New York Dermatology Group, says the most important step to prevent skin cancer is to get your yearly screening at a dermatologist’s office. “The scalp is skin, too, and it needs to be checked,” she told Yahoo Health. “But some doctors might miss it. If yours doesn’t automatically check it, ask her to look.”

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Weiser says the best time to check the scalp for skin cancer is when your hair is wet. It’s easier to section it out, so you know what ground you’ve already covered. But your strands probably won’t be wet at your appointment, so it’s better to do frequent self-checks at home.

You can use your pinky finger to separate hair into fine segments roughly a centimeter apart, checking your entire scalp. Look for atypical moles, brown spots or pigmented lesions. “Men usually don’t have a tough time seeing their entire scalp, but I tell my female patients to ask their hairdressers to let them know if they see something that needs to be checked out, like a mole behind your ear that you can’t see,” Weiser says.

Protection is key — especially if your hair is thinning like Keady’s. Use a hat or spray sunscreen on your scalp when you go outside. And if you notice an abnormal spot or lesion, bring it to your doc’s attention. Weiser says to pay special attention to anything that bleeds, is tender, or is not healing properly. “For instance, if that pimple isn’t gone in a month, it might not be a pimple,” she says. “See your doctor.”

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