Healthbeat Report: Preventing Hair Loss

January 12, 2012 8:32:10 PM PST
Hair loss caused by chemotherapy is one of the most obvious signs of cancer treatment. Some people will even put off chemo because of it. Now, an icy cold treatment to help lock in those locks is gaining attention as more patients and doctors consider this chilly approach.

When Cheryl Cook got breast cancer her doctor recommended chemotherapy and told her what to expect.

"Because of the drug that I'd be taking, I'd lose my hair pretty before the second treatment," said Cook.

So, she started researching ways to stop that. Cook discovered a clinical trial testing an investigational system designed to prevent chemo-induced hair loss.

"I am literally hooked up to machine that acts like an air conditioner and it reduces the scalp to 42 degrees," said Cook.

A coolant circulates through a silicone cap, causing blood flow to hair follicles to constrict.

"It cools the scalp down and by doing that prevents the chemotherapy from actually getting into the hair follicles and causing hair loss," said Dr. Susan Melin, oncologist, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

The study at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center involved 20 study participants with stage one breast cancer. Most were able to keep enough hair that they didn't need a wig or head covering.

"It was very easy for me to manage and I was glad to," said Cook.

Dr. Ezra Cohen researches cancer medications at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He has not yet had a patient using a cooling cap but says different forms of the treatment have been around for many years and the newer versions are an improvement.

"We have to ask the question, does it work? And for the most part the answer is yes. It can prevent hair loss in the majority of women and men who use it. The good studies will suggest somewhere around 70 percent," said Dr. Cohen.

One company called penguin cold caps rents out caps that are actually frozen and then place on the head but have to be switched out every 30 minutes.

There is no guarantee freezing the scalp will work for everyone and there are some cancers the treatment can't be used for. Also, there are concerns doing that the method could create a place for cancer cells to hide in the scalp during chemo treatments.

But studies in Europe and Asia, where the cap is widely available, show it's safe and effective. And patients should keep in mind hair loss could eventually become a thing of the past without the need for deep freeze.

"Most of the new drugs that are being developed today and most of the new drugs that have been approved in the last decade do not include hair loss as a side effect," said Dr. Cohen.

Cheryl Cook was facing the prospect of going bald. So she was glad to wear the cap during every one of her chemo treatments. Color, perms, and blow drying were off limits.

"I had pretty well decided, you know, I'm gonna lose my hair. But the fact that I didn't, you just feel better," she said.

The cold cap is not yet available in the U.S. The frozen penguin caps which are rented can be ordered online.

The FDA has not given its stamp of approval to any hair chilling therapies, so patients will most likely be paying out of pocket, somewhere around $500 a month.

Penguin Cold Cap Therapy

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center
Bonnie Davis