It’s well known that many cancer treatments lead to hair loss. For many people, just hearing the word “cancer” brings to mind an image of a bald patient in a hospital gown attached to IVs.
Hopefully that image is going to change soon.
We now know that cooling the scalp can reduce hair loss that is associated with cancer therapy. The scalp is highly vascular, meaning there are lots of blood vessels. Reducing the temperature of the scalp reduces blood flow by causing the blood vessels to contract (think of how you often shake or tighten-up when it is very cold outside). This reduced blood flow reduces the activity of the cancer therapy on the scalp, thereby reducing damage to hair follicles.
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration cleared a cooling cap system for patients undergoing chemotherapy for solid tumors, such as colon, kidney, bowel, or prostate (it had already received clearance for breast cancer). According to recent research, over half of the patients using a scalp cooling device kept most of their hair vs zero percent in the group of patients who did not use anything.
How it works is pretty simple. Patients wear a frozen “cap” on their scalp for almost 3 hours – 30 minutes before and during chemo, and then about 90 minutes after. Like any drug or procedure, there are risks, which include pain, headaches, nausea, and sometimes the classic “brain freeze.” The bad news is that there is very limited coverage by insurance companies. And the procedure can be expensive.
But for many patients, the side effects and hefty price tag are worth it for a shot at preventing hair loss. And not just for cosmetic reasons. Our hair is part of our identity. At a time when cancer is taking away so much, keeping their hair allows patients to hold onto a sense of who they are.
If you’re recently diagnosed and chemotherapy is part of your treatment plan, talk to your doctor to see if using a cold cap system might work for you.