WASHINGTON (AP) — Hair loss is one of chemotherapy’s most despised side effects, not because of vanity but because it fuels stigma_revealing to the world an illness that many would rather keep private.
Now U.S. researchers are about to put an experimental hair-preserving treatment to a rigorous test: To see if strapping on a cap so cold it numbs the scalp during chemotherapy really works well enough to be used widely in this country, as it is in Europe and Canada.
The first time Miriam Lipton had breast cancer, her thick locks fell out two weeks after starting chemotherapy. But when the disease struck again, she used a cold cap during treatment and kept much of her hair, making her fight for survival seem a bit easier.
“I didn’t necessarily want to walk around the grocery store answering questions about my cancer,” recalled Lipton, 45, of San Francisco.
Near-freezing temperatures reduce blood flow in the scalp, making it harder for cancer-fighting drugs to reach and harm hair follicles.
To Dr. Hope Rugo of the University of California, San Francisco, the impact of hair loss has been overlooked, even belittled, by health providers.
“Quite frankly, it’s the first or second question out of most patients’ mouths when I tell them I recommend chemotherapy. It’s not, ‘Is this going to cure me? It’s, ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’” adds Dr. Susan Melin of North Carolina’s Wake Forest Baptist Medical.
Later this summer, Rugo and Melin, along with researchers at a few other hospitals in New York and California, will begin enrolling 110 early stage breast cancer patients in a study of the DigniCap brand of scalp cooling. The tight-fitting, insulated cap is attached to a cooling machine to stay around a shivery 41 degrees as patients undergo chemo. Participants’ hair will be photographed for experts to assess, and they’ll be compared with a small group of similarly ill patients who get chemo alone.
If the larger study is successful, Sweden’s Dignitana AB plans to seek FDA approval to market the medical device in the U.S. The move could open the way for other brands and insurance coverage.
Clearly there’s demand: Despite the lack of FDA approval, a growing number of U.S. patients are renting a similar product, called Penguin Cold Caps, from a British company for $455 a month. Patients haul a collection of caps to chemo sessions on dry ice, or store them in special freezers provided by about 50 hospitals. It’s deliberately separate from doctors’ and nurses’ care — typically, patients bring a friend to help them switch caps every 20 to 30 minutes when one loses its chill.
“I know I’m sick, but I don’t want to look it,” said Vanessa Thomas, 57, of Baltimore, who is using the Penguin caps at the recommendation of her doctor at MedStar Harbor Hospital. Halfway through her breast cancer treatment, Thomas says her hair feels only a little thinner.