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Most cancer patients don’t really think about the importance of their hair until they face the possibility of losing it. Your appearance, of course, changes drastically. Loss of hair also affects simple things like keeping your head warm in cold weather, or avoiding sunburned ears and scalp, or bumps and scrapes that never were a problem before all your hair fell out.
Both men and women fear the loss of hair during cancer treatment. Many oncologists report that the first question patients ask about chemotherapy is not “Is it going to cure me?” but rather “Is it going to make me lost my hair?” It’s hard to maintain a healthy body image without your hair. A new and easier method of an old technique for sparing your hair, is now available in Europe and the USA.
Keeping a Cool Head During Chemotherapy
The DigniCap Cooling System (manufactured by Dignitana Inc, in Lund, Sweden), already available in the European Union, has been tested at several hospitals in the United States and recently received approval from the American FDA. The device made its American debut at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in December 2015.
Here’s how it works:
About 30 minutes before a chemotherapy session, patients strap on a tight-fitting cap that is connected to a refrigerator-sized cooling machine (about the size of a European refrigerator, not the “double decker” American version). The machine chills the scalp to about 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit), without freezing the skin, until the scalp is numb. Then the chemotherapy infusion begins. Patients stay hooked up to the machine during the entire chemotherapy session, and for another 90 minutes as the concentrations of chemotherapy drugs in their bloodstreams begin to drop.
Near-freezing temperatures keep chemotherapy drugs from reaching hair follicles. There may be situations in which this not a good thing, if stray cancer cells have already managed to reach the scalp. Most cancer patients, particularly when they are first diagnosed, are willing to take the risk of less than 100 percent destruction of their cancers when there is a possibility of keeping their hair. Fortunately, the risk of recurring cancers of the scalp is very, very low.
How Well Does the Cool Cap Work?
Most users of cool caps and similar devices manage to keep about half of their hair. There can be more hair loss on the crown of the head where the cap does not fit as snugly. There can be side effects:
- Cold-induced headaches, similar to a “brain freeze” when eating ice cream too fast.
- Neck and shoulder discomfort from sitting still to hold the cap in position for more than two hours.
- Joint pain from the cold affecting the jaws and neck.
However, many users of the device are willing to undergo the potential pain and inconvenience of the device to be able to go out in public without looking sick. One user commented “I’m just glad I can go to the grocery store without people asking me how my chemotherapy is going.” The cost of using the device is $1500 to $3000 for each round of chemotherapy.