IF YOU’RE TERRIFIED OF LOSING YOUR HAIR FROM CHEMOTHERAPY TREATMENT, ASK YOUR ONCOLOGIST WHETHER SCALP-COOLING THERAPY CAN SAVE YOUR HAIR.
Obviously when you talk to most women about cancer, their second-biggest fear concerns losing their hair during chemotherapy treatment, which can typically last anywhere from four to six weeks and cause total hair loss for up to six months. But what if you could prevent your hair from falling out during chemo?
This idea and practice of cooling the scalp to freezing to prevent hair loss from chemo drugs has been around for a while, mostly in Europe, says Dr. Eric Schweiger, M.D., F.A.A.D., a New York City dermatologist and hair loss treatment specialist. “Basically, you wear a cold pack on the scalp before, during and after your round of chemo and it reduces the temperature of your hair follicles.” Researchers aren’t exactly sure how it works: Either the flow of blood containing the drugs is constricted to the scalp or the metabolic rate at which hair cells absorb anything in the blood like chemotherapy drugs is slowed or both, explains Schweiger. “Studies have been promising, and around 90 percent of people have kept their hair during treatments, mostly in shorter four-week courses of chemo and depending on the location of the cancer and the type of cancer cocktail administered.”
Ask your oncologist these five tough questions about scalp-cooling therapy as a hair loss treatment for you:
Because the efficacy and safety of using scalp-cooling therapy depends on your specific cancer situation, your duration of chemo and your chemo cocktail, only your oncologist can answer these five tough questions before you make any decisions about using scalp-cooling therapy as a hair loss treatment.
- Will the cold deter my specific chemo cocktail from attacking my hair follicles? Some chemo drugs are so strong they will attack hair follicles no matter what.
- How many rounds of chemo will I require? Scalp-cooling therapy may not be able to protect hair follicles over the longer durations of chemo where the drugs build up and continue attacking hair follicles.
- What type of cancer do I have? Most of the positive buzz surrounding scalp-cooling therapy is centered on breast cancer treatment patients who have used it successfully. Depending on your type of cancer or stage of cancer, it may not be indicated.
- What is the location of my cancer? If your cancer is anywhere near your head or is a rapidly metastasizing cancer, scalp-cooling therapy may not be indicated.
- Are scalp metastases a concern? Scalp metastases are rogue cancer cells that make their way to the scalp. Currently, there is no clinical or scientific evidence that the incidence of scalp metastases is increased or not increased in scalp-cooled patients, according to Dr. Schweiger.
Are you tough enough for scalp-cooling therapy? Ask yourself these five tough questions:
- How do I feel about the cold in general? Scalp-cooling therapy is more than “cool”: Your head will be at or around freezing temperatures for 4four to seven hours, with no warm showers for three days after chemo treatments, either.
- What is my pain threshold? Freezing your scalp can be painful depending on your personal pain thresholds. Can you stand it?
- Do I have someone to help me during the chemo treatment? Because “cold caps” warm-up every half hour or so, they need to be rotated by someone who is there to help you replace and refasten them.
- Does my chemo facility have the special biomedical freezer required to store my cold caps, or will I have to transport them myself in dry ice? Scalp-cooling therapy is new, and while a few cancer centers have gotten the freezers, most have not — and dry ice is difficult to work with.
- Can I afford the cost? Costs vary depending on the manufacturer, the number of caps required for a specific treatment regimen, the number of months the caps will be in use and whether more than one patient will be using the caps concurrently. The treatment can cost upward of $1,000.
More research of scalp-cooling therapy as a hair loss treatment during chemo needs to be done.
According to the Rapunzel Project, a nonprofit group headed by Shirley Billigmeier and Nancy Marshall, breast cancer survivors and successful scalp-cooling therapy users who engage in fund-raising to supply the special biomedical freezers to hospitals and cancer treatment centers nationwide, awareness of this treatment in the United States is minimal. Dr. Schweiger adds that the therapy has not been approved by the FDA. Currently, patients can rent caps from the manufacturers, with the approval of their physician. The Rapunzel Project is trying to facilitate the use of scalp-cooling therapy as a hair loss treatment with tips on using the therapy successfully and by helping hospitals purchase the freezers that make cold cap therapy more manageable for patients.
Currently, a new trial involving one brand of scalp-cooling therapy is on the agenda at the University of California, San Francisco — it could shed some current light on the efficacy and safety of using scalp-cooling therapy as a hair loss treatment during chemotherapy. Oncologists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and MD Anderson Cancer Center could not be reached for comment on the treatment.