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Cooling caps for chemotherapy

faungg's photos/flickr

Chemotherapy is one of the most effective ways of treating cancer, but it has some unfortunate side effect -- like hair loss. And for women, that side effect is frequently the most traumatic.

This week, assistant professor of medicine at the Breast Center at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Breast Cancer Prevention and High Risk Clinic Dr. Julie Nangia joins “Take Care” to discuss how women undergoing chemotherapy might be able to save their hair by wearing cooling caps.

Hair loss can be one of the most difficult things for a women undergoing chemotherapy to face. Nangia says some women even decline the treatment because they are so fearful of losing their hair -- even if it could save their lives.

“It’s really more than just a vanity issue… your hair is part of the way you look, who you are, and universally when I explain chemo to women, they cry when I tell them they’re going to lose their hair,” Nangia said. “It’s very difficult for them to look into the mirror because they see this person that looks so sick, even if they feel okay.”

Beyond the impact hair loss can have on self-esteem, it also makes it impossible to keep one’s cancer private. Even attempts to disguise hair loss often give clear signals that something is different.

“They can’t even go watch a movie without people looking at them differently because they look sick,” Nangia said. “It’s a really important quality of life issue.”

That’s what Nangia is concerned with -- improving quality of life for cancer patients. She’s been studying a type of cooling cap that can dramatically reduce and even outright prevent hair loss as a result of chemotherapy.

Cooling caps have existed since the 1970s, but the ones Nangia is studying weren’t invented until the 1990s. Originally designed as a sort of ice pack that would need to be replaced every 30 minutes to accommodate for thawing, they have evolved into small refrigeration units that can remain on the patient’s head for the duration of the treatment, and 90 minutes after.

Using the caps reduces the rate of hair loss dramatically. Nangia says the women in the study who wore the cap during chemotherapy lost at most 30 percent of their hair, while those who didn’t wear the caps lost all of theirs.

The caps aren’t widely available yet, but Nangia hopes that they can become a mainstream part of the chemotherapy process. The largest barrier is cost -- the caps aren’t covered by insurance, and many patients aren’t able to afford them.

“I’m hoping now that we have devices that are easier for centers to use, you will see the cost come down,” Nangia said. “But it’s not something that everyone will be offered if they go in for infusion at this time.”

Still, Nangia remains hopeful that the caps can become a regular part of chemotherapy. She is optimistic that further research into the psychological effects of hair loss will encourage insurers to consider them.

“As we collect more data, especially about the damage to body image and psyche, then maybe we’d be able to have this as a covered benefit under insurance where anyone who wanted it would have access to it,” Nangia said. And even if the caps can’t save all of someone’s hair, some is better than none at all.