As a woman, arguably your hair is as much a statement of your identity as your outfit. This is why for many women diagnosed with cancer, the idea that they may lose their hair during treatment can be such a blow.
A cancer diagnosis by itself is a massive thing to have to face. The concept of being a lot more sick than you thought, that the next few months, years, won’t be what you had planned. The sickening thought that maybe nothing that you had planned might come to fruition. Losing your hair is yet another psychological obstacle that comes with cancer. It’s a time that you need something to repair your confidence, to make you feel like yourself when everything is changing.
Women deal with hair loss in different ways. Wigs and scarves look wonderful on women who have lost their hair through chemotherapy and provide them the opportunity to style themselves in a new way. And of course, there are those who brave going bald, looking just as stunning as they ever did before. And for some women, their own natural hair is too precious to give up, and so they look for other alternatives to losing it.
Cold caps are an option to prevent the loss of a woman’s natural hair through treatment. They work by being placed tightly on the patient’s scalp, either before, during or after chemotherapy treatment, and cooling the scalp to narrow the blood vessels beneath the skin. This reduces the amount of chemotherapy medication that reaches the hair follicles, thus reducing the risk of the medication causing the hair to fall out. The cold temperature also decreases the hair follicle’s activity, reducing cell division and further decreasing the risk of hair being affected by the chemotherapy.
Studies by the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that using a cold cap prevented complete hair loss in 60% of the women who used it during their treatment for breast cancer. These are positive findings when you compare it to the control group, all of whom experienced complete hair loss.
But as always, good stats don’t tell the full story. The use of a cold cap is not available to everyone, with factors like age, type of cancer and type of chemotherapy medication all coming into play. For those who do have the option, using a cold cap can be uncomfortable, and as it prolongs the days of treatment (you have to wear it before, during and after the chemotherapy, so it means a longer time spent in the hospital), it can be an arduous undertaking.
For Karen*, her hair had always been a point of pride for her. “I’ve always had really long thick hair and the thought of losing it really affected me. When I was first diagnosed 14 years ago, there wasn’t any option to prevent hair loss. I was going to lose my hair and that was it”.
After having treatment for breast cancer 14 years ago, when she found a lump again in early 2017, it was a shock. “It’s unusual for that to happen,” she said. “I was diagnosed in April last year and started treatment again in June.”
When her consultant gave her the option to use a cold cap during her treatment this time around, it was a no-brainer. When Karen began treatment, it was worth the discomfort. “It was very heavy and the cold did get to me. And the most annoying thing was probably the length of time it took around my chemotherapy treatments. But it was worth it to me.”
Karen still experienced hair loss, losing almost 50% of her hair. But without the cap, she would have lost it completely. “I didn’t keep all of my hair, but because I kept it long, it meant that I could tie it up and style it in such a way that I still looked like myself”. For many women, the thoughts of looking sick and not like themselves during treatment is a big concern.
Now, Karen is beginning recovery. “I finished up treatment in December and now I’m happy and healthy, feeling great!” And she wouldn’t think twice about recommending scalp cooling to other women. “If I would have to go through treatment again, I would absolutely use it. It was a great solution for me.”