Keeping your hair in chemo

Monday, March 9, 2015

Photo of Dr. Tessa CiglerDr. Tessa Cigler Hair loss is one of the most obvious side effects of cancer treatment. Now, a growing number of breast cancer patients are freezing their scalps as a way to preserve their hair during chemotherapy.

The hair­saving treatment, widely used in Europe, requires a specialized frozen cap worn tightly on the head before, during and for a couple hours after a chemotherapy session. The method can be time consuming, expensive and uncomfortable, but numerous women swear by the results.

“I had the wig ready, but I never had to use it,” said Eileen Bruno, 50, of Westwood, N.J., who last year completed chemotherapy and cold cap treatment while maintaining her full head of thick, blond hair.

After learning that she had early­stage breast cancer, Ms. Bruno said she worried about her health – and losing her hair.

“Knowing I was going to lose my hair was an awful thing for me,” Ms. Bruno said. “I was really struggling with the fact that not only was I sick, but I was going to have to look sick to myself and the rest of the world.”

Ms. Bruno learned of the cold­cap treatment through friends, and gained the support of her doctors at the Weill Cornell Breast Center in New York, one of only a few New York hospitals that accommodate cold­cap treatment. The hospital has made space for a special medical freezer that keeps the caps ready at the right temperature, donated by the Minneapolis nonprofit group The Rapunzel Project. Patients can also stay in the infusion area after chemotherapy ends to finish the cold­cap treatment.

Ms. Bruno used the Penguin Cold Cap, which is essentially an ice pack fitted tightly on the head like a swim cap. The cold caps, which are rented for about $600 a month for a set of caps, must be kept frozen and changed quickly every half ­hour. Many women enlist friends or family members to help them quickly change and refreeze the caps as needed. Some patients hire “cappers” to help, paying $300 to $750 a day for the service.

Dr. Tessa Cigler, a Weill Cornell oncologist involved in the cold­cap studies, said she first learned about cold caps from a patient who had researched the treatment and learned about their use in Europe. After studying the European data on cold­cap treatment, she allowed her patient to use them and became interested in conducting her own research.

The success of a cold cap treatment often depends on the duration and type of chemotherapy regimen, so not every woman is a candidate, Dr. Cigler says. In addition, cold caps are typically used only on patients with solid tumors, like breast cancer, and are not suitable for patients with blood cancers.

“Cold cap therapy is really empowering to many patients,” Dr. Cigler said. “It has allowed many patients to protect their privacy, and allows women to maintain their self­esteem and their sense of well­being during a really difficult time.”

This article first appeared in the New York Times. The full article is available here.