Going bald is one of the most obvious and demoralizing signs of cancer treatment — at least, if you opt for chemotherapy.
Once you lose your hair, your secret is out. Your cancer battle goes public. It might garner you sympathy from strangers, but you also lose the ability to carry on a normal life.
And maybe worse, every time you look in the mirror, you see a sick person. For women especially, hair loss can be the single most traumatic side-effect of going through chemotherapy.
I’m happy to tell you there may be an answer. Keep reading. . .
It’s a verdict without appeal delivered by oncologists who recommend chemotherapy. “You have a good chance of survival,” they’ll say. “The cancer may not come back. But you will lose all your hair.”
Thanks to something called cold cap therapy, a large number of cancer patients can be saved the embarrassment of hair loss. This very simple, all-natural therapy has been around for years and is popular in Europe, though it’s been slow to catch on in the U.S.
The bottom line here is that most cancer sufferers can make it through chemotherapy with a full head of hair. I’m not a fan of chemotherapy at all, but if that’s the treatment you choose, then you deserve to know there’s a pretty good chance of keeping yourself from going bald. And it’s easy, too.
Freeze toxins right out of your head
The concept itself is simple — and also a bit strange: You wear a frozen cap during chemotherapy treatment. The cap keeps your scalp cold. And somehow, this prevents your hair from falling out.
The caps themselves look like swimmers’ caps. They’re also known as hypothermia caps, since they appear to induce local vasoconstriction around hair follicles (vasoconstriction is the body’s natural response to cold). This means blood flow around the hair follicles slows. As a result, toxins from chemotherapy drugs don’t fully circulate around the follicles, and the hair stays rooted.
The first patent for this therapy was filed in the late 1970s. Called “Chemo caps” at the time, the caps consisted of multiple gel-filled nylon pouches. The pouches were frozen and then worn for 15 to 20 minutes before chemo took place.
Studies at the time showed success rates for the Chemo Cap were around 73 percent. So when the first patent expired, a new wave of interest in “scalp cooling” took place.
Now, the two most common cap systems are the Penguin Cold Cap and the DigniCap Scalp Cooling System. Both are used throughout Europe, with success rates verging on 85 percent or higher.
-22 degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number
The DigniCap system involves a coolant pumped into the caps by a compressor. Temperature sensors inside the caps control circulation of the coolant. Meanwhile, the Penguin Cold Caps are filled with Crylon Gel cooled down to -22 degrees Fahrenheit. The caps have to be changed every thirty minutes during the chemo treatment process.
The company behind the Penguin Cold Caps claims thousands of patients in Europe have kept their hair thanks to this simple intervention. But for U.S. residents, access is a problem. The caps must be stored in a freezer that can maintain a temperature of -22 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s extremely cold. Not many hospitals offer access to this kind of freezer.
Thankfully, there are people trying to change all that.
Shirley Billigmeier, an American who kept her hair following chemotherapy thanks to Penguin Cold Caps, joined with her friend Nancy Marshall to co-found something called The Rapunzel Project. They donate freezers to cancer sufferers around the country who want to try the therapy. Their website (www.rapunzelproject.org) also lists hospitals and medical centers that can supply the caps.
Doesn’t apply to all cancers
Cold cap therapy is controversial, of course. And there are plenty of skeptics in the medical community. It’s only thanks to the power of the Internet that cold cap therapy is surfacing in the U.S. Patients are talking to each other, looking for a better way than what their oncologists offer.
A lot of oncologists either don’t know about the treatment or are stuck on the early trial results from back in the 1980’s. There are also doctors who are skeptical of the treatment because it means the chemo isn’t getting into a patient’s scalp and hair follicles, meaning patients could undergo metastases of the scalp.
Yet a 2009 study published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment recorded a 1.1 percent incidence in scalp metastasis among women who used the cold caps, while a 1.2 percent increase was recorded among women who did not use the caps. In other words — no difference in scalp cancer results from using the caps.
Keep in mind, cold cap therapy doesn’t appear to be appropriate for all cancers. If you have a blood-borne cancer, like leukemia or lymphoma, then it’s not recommended. The thinking is that because blood circulates through your scalp, any chemotherapy treatment targeting cancer cells in the blood might fail to reach every place in the body where it’s needed.
Cold caps are most commonly used for women getting chemotherapy as a preventive therapy for breast cancer, or for patients with other localized forms of cancer.
For now, insurance companies don’t cover cold caps because, in their view, it hasn’t been thoroughly studied. Total cost for the Penguin caps is around $1500 after cap rental and buying dry ice, which is a back-up freezing method if you can’t get hold of a suitable freezer.
It’s about patient empowerment
The oncologists today who are open to cold cap therapy are the ones whose patients have used it successfully. The real-life cases they’ve seen are encouraging them to look past survival numbers and outcome statistics, and to start recognizing the emotional side effects that play a significant role in recovery.
As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t “just” about vanity. It’s about giving patients some meaningful control over what’s happening to them. Taking charge of the way you look, beating the odds, and beating the pronouncements of naysayer doctors is as good a way as any of sticking it to cancer.
After all, if you don’t look like a sick cancer patient, you won’t feel as much like a sick cancer patient. Keeping your spirits up can be essential to recovery.
- “Cold cap therapy.” By Kathleen Leinen, Daily News, Wahpeton, ND.
- “Cold Cap Therapy May Help Women Undergoing Chemotherapy Keep Hair.” By Morgan Zalkin, ABC News.
- “Hypothermia cap.” Wikipedia.
- “What is Cold Cap Therapy?” The Rapunzel Project.