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Hair loss affects at least 65 percent of cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, yet it remains one of the treatment’s most traumatic side effects. And because of the emotional and psychological toll that hair loss can exact on women, some will forgo chemotherapy treatment entirely, delay it, or choose less effective treatments in order to avoid the consequences.
Now, an experimental treatment using extreme cold to prevent chemotherapy-induced hair loss may help reduce that stigma. A tightly-fitting hat equipped with a circulating cooling gel that chills hair follicles to limit the amount of chemotherapy they absorb, the DigniCap so far has been used on just four patients in the United States. A 100-person trial required by the FDA to test the Swedish device for safety and effectiveness is also on the horizon.
Some cancer specialists, however, remain skeptical of the benefits of the cooling treatments and wary of the risks of scalp hypothermia, as the therapy is known. Marlon Garzo Saria, a clinical nurse specialist and spokesman for the Oncology Nursing Society, is hesitant to recommend the treatment. “There is concern that it prevents chemotherapy from reaching cancer cells that may be present in sanctuary sites in the brain,” he explained. “Until we can find clear evidence that this is not so, I would rather err on the side of caution and presume that the risk of cancer outweighs the benefit of preventing hair loss in patients.”
Other studies show the benefits of the scalp treatments to be remarkably positive. Instead of losing all their hair, explains Dr. Hope S. Rugo, director of breast oncology and clinical trials education at the University of California San Francisco, patients might instead lose just 15 to 25 percent of their hair. She estimates that about 60 percent of patients preserve most of their hair.
So far, it seems that the biggest roadblock to using the technique is that so few cancer patients know enough about it to consider it as an option. A nonprofit group called The Rapunzel Project is helping raise awareness of the issue.
If approved by the FDA, the scalp-cooling devices could be a revolutionary option for the 225,000 women diagnosed annually with breast and ovarian cancer in the U.S. It also may become an option for patients with other types of cancer, and for men who don’t want to lose their hair.
More information about this scalp-cooling technology is available at
January 28, 2011