Cap Used During Chemotherapy at Scully-Welsh Cancer Center Helps Reduce Hair Loss
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Losing her hair was one of the side effects Stuart resident Mimi O’Leary dreaded as she prepared to start chemotherapy for breast cancer.
She had just been diagnosed with estrogen positive breast cancer, and doctors recommended a mastectomy and radiation, followed by 16 rounds of chemotherapy.
“Before I was diagnosed, I never understood about losing your hair when undergoing treatment,” O’Leary said. “I said, ‘What’s the big deal; it’s only hair, who cares?’ But it turns out that it is a big deal because I have three teenagers and I didn’t want to look sick.”
O’Leary’s physician, Dr. Stephen Patterson, mentioned a new procedure available at the Scully-Welsh Cancer Center in Vero Beach called the DigniCap Cooling System, designed to help patients undergoing chemotherapy save some of their hair.
The DigniCap chills patients’ scalps to reduce hair loss during chemotherapy , making hair less likely to fall out. In July, the Food and Drug Administration expanded its use from breast cancer patients to women and men with solid tumor cancers, including lung cancer.
“I gave her (Mimi) the option,” said Patterson, a medical oncologist at the Indian River Medical Center. “It is an approved medical device, but it’s not for everyone. There’s no way to predict which people will have the best results, but it seems people with thicker hair seem to do better.”
It worked for O’Leary: The device saved about 60 percent of her hair, making her thick hair look just thinner than usual. While there is no way to measure actual hair retention, most patients are glad they did it, Patterson said.
“I definitely did not lose noticeable amounts of hair,” O’Leary said. “I knew my hair was thinner, but no one else really noticed. Only my close friends really knew anything about it.”
The DigniCap treatment is not easy, O’Leary said, but she was committed to staying the course.
Only five patients so far at Scully-Welsh have opted for the treatment, and two of them dropped out. But the popularity of the treatment could expand now that it can be used during chemotherapy for other types of solid tumor cancers.
“If a patient is interested, I think they should try it,” Patterson said. “They can always stop it because there is no risk to them. There are very few things in medicine that have no risk to the patient.”
Carrie Sansone, an administrative assistant at the Scully-Welsh Cancer Center, fits patients for the cap, which comes in a variety of sizes. The cap is put on the patient at room temperature, and the treatment temperature, just above freezing, is achieved over a short period of time.
“The hardest part is the first 20 minutes,” O’Leary said. “It feels like a brain freeze or like you have a cup of ice on your head and it slowly starts melting. After the first 20 minutes, you kind of get used to it.”
Side effects for patients include headaches and chills, so O’Leary stocked up on woolen headbands to cover her ears as well as thick gloves and heavy socks she wore for her 16, three–hour treatments. Hospital volunteers and staff brought her heated blankets and she also took extra-strength acetaminophen before leaving home for each of her treatments.
“Some people try it and decide it’s not for them,” O’Leary said. “But for me, my goal was to keep our family life as normal as possible, so I am happy I did it.”
Usually, the cost for the treatment would be dependent on the number of rounds of chemotherapy a person undergoes, but at Scully-Welsh, the cost is covered by a group called “Answer to Cancer” that raised $96,000 to bring the technology to Vero Beach. Scully-Welsh Cancer Center is the only location on the Treasure Coast where the DigniCap is available.
“It is considered to be cosmetic so patients would have to pay out-of-pocket,” said Sansone. “But because of this donation, it looks like we’ll be able to cover the cost for the cap for more than a year.”
That’s important for patients like O’Leary who have amassed large medical bills treating their disease.
And if there’s one lesson to be shared, O’Leary wants women to be proactive in their health care.
“When I found the lump, I was convinced it was just a cyst,” O’Leary said. “I could have blown it off. My advice to everyone is to get your screening.”
DigniCap Scalp Cooling System
What is the DigniCap Scalp Cooling System?
Liquid circulates to a cap is worn on the head to cool the scalp during chemotherapy treatment. This cap is covered by a second cap made from neoprene, a type of rubber that holds the cooling cap in place and acts as an insulation cover to prevent loss of cooling.
The cooling is intended to constrict blood vessels in the scalp, which reduces the amount of chemotherapy that reaches cells in the hair follicles.
The cold temperature also decreases the activity of the hair follicles and slows down cell division, making them less affected by chemotherapy. The combined actions are thought to reduce the effect chemotherapy has on the cells, which may reduce hair loss.
What is Answer to Cancer?
Answer to Cancer is a Vero Beach-based charity that raises funds to improve cancer care in the community. Started in 2006 by two cancer survivors and a small committee of residents of the Grand Harbor community, the group sponsors events each year to raise money for cancer care services at the Scully-Welsh Cancer Center at Indian River Medical Center. For more information, visit www.GrandHarbor.com/grand-harbor-cares.