His Combover Could Have Killed Him

His Combover Could Have Killed Him

Gene Keady in his combover 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 combover 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 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 combover. Of course, it was very ugly.”

However, the hair wasn’t just ugly. It was actually dangerous.

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Keady and his combover speak with 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 marrying now-wife Kathleen Petrie, she finally convinced Keady to get rid of the combover. 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 combover, 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, two million people in total 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 says. “But some doctors might miss it. If yours doesn’t automatically check it, ask her to look.”

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

You can use your pinky finger and separate hair into fine segments roughly one centimeter apart, checking your entire scalp. Look for atypical moles, brown spots or pigmented lesions, shiny, pink basal cells. “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,” says Weiser.

Protection is key — especially if your hair is thinning like Keady’s. Use a hat or spray sunscreen when you go outside. And if you notice an abnormal spot or lesion on your scalp, always 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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