New cooling cap helps woman keep her hair during chemotherapy

Published: Jun. 24, 2016 at 4:06 PM EDT
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Breast cancer treatment can be uncomfortable, but a newly approved product may allow some patients to avoid one unpleasant side effect to chemo treatment.

A new cooling cap may help some patients save their hair.

“I feel like having long hair has always been a big part of who I am,” said Heather Chemtov.

Chemtov is half way through her chemotherapy for breast cancer and she still has her long, flowing hair. She wears the new DigniCap during chemotherapy.

Chemtov told Ivanhoe, “I can rest. I can have a conversation. I can watch a movie, whatever I want to do to help pass the time.”

Chemo patients lose their hair because blood flow delivers the toxins throughout the body, including to the hair follicles.

Elisa Krill-Jackson, M.D., a medical oncologist at Mount Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami, Florida explained, “If we put a frozen cap on somebody’s head, it slows the blood flow down significantly.”

That means the hair follicles get less chemo. During the procedure, a machine circulates 32 degree gel into the cap. FDA trials show the new cap works. Seventy percent of early stage breast cancer patients kept at least 50% of their hair, like Chemtov, who’s grateful to recognize herself when she looks in the mirror.

“It makes this whole process so much easier and more comfortable at a time when really nothing is easy or comfortable,” described Chemtov.

An older gel-filled cap used to be an option for some patients, but that cap had to be replaced when it thawed. For Chemtov, the old cap had to be replaced up to 18 times a session. The new cap was FDA approved December 2015.

Research Summary

BACKGROUND: Hair loss occurs for many cancer patients because chemotherapy targets all rapidly dividing cells—healthy cells, as well as cancer cells. Hair follicles are some of the fastest-growing cells in the body, so as chemo does its work against cancer cells, it also destroys hair cells. For an average person, hair follicles divide every 23 to 72 hours; however, within a few weeks of starting chemo, some people may lose some or all of their hair. The hair loss may be gradual or dramatic with clumps found in hairbrushes, the tub drain or on pillows.


TREATMENT EFFECTS ON HAIR LOSS: Some chemotherapy drugs affect only the hair on the head, while others cause the loss of eyebrows, eyelashes, pubic hair, and hair on legs, arms or underarms. The type of treatment that a patient receives will determine whether their hair thins or becomes completely bald. The timing of treatments will also affect hair loss. Some types of chemotherapy that are given weekly and in small doses can minimize hair loss, while other treatments that are scheduled every three to four weeks in higher doses may be more likely to cause more hair loss. Below are some effects that certain chemotherapy drugs may have on hair loss:

Adriamycin causes complete hair loss on the head, usually during the first few weeks of treatment. Some women also lose eyelashes and eyebrows.

Methotrexate thins hair in some people but not others. And it's rare to have complete hair loss from methotrexate.

Cytoxan and 5-fluorouracil cause minimal hair loss in most women, but some may lose a great deal.

Taxol usually causes complete hair loss, including head, brows, lashes, pubic area, legs, and arms.

Other types of breast cancer treatments may also cause hair loss, such as:

Radiation treatment causes hair loss on the particular part of the body treated. Radiation to the brain, used to treat metastatic cancer in the brain, usually causes complete hair loss on the head.

Hormonal treatments such Tamoxifen may cause some hair thinning, but not baldness.


NEW TECHNOLOGY: On December 8, 2015, the FDA approved the DigniCap Scalp Cooling System in the United States for the use in breast cancer patients. The cold caps work by narrowing the blood vessels beneath the skin of the scalp, reducing the amount of chemotherapy medicine that reaches the hair follicles. With less chemotherapy medicine in the follicles, the hair may be less likely to fall out. FDA trials for the DigniCap showed that 70% of early stage breast cancer patients kept at least 50% of their hair. As of mid-2016, there are only 10 cancer centers in the U.S. that are using the DigniCap.