Hair-Saving Technology Benefits Plano Breast Cancer Patient

Although hair loss caused by chemotherapy is usually temporary, many patients with cancer consider it one of the most distressing side effects of treatment. It’s the reason one in 12 women with breast cancer decline potentially life-saving treatment, according to the American Cancer Society. But interventions such as scalp cooling are now making it possible for physicians to reduce or eliminate toxic effects associated with their patients’ cancer treatments.

“The idea of scalp cooling has been around since the 1970s and received expanded clearance for use on breast cancer patients beginning in 2015,” explained Ruben Saez, M.D., of Plano Cancer Institute, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “The technology works on certain chemotherapy drugs more than others, but it’s been shown to be an effective and safe way to help ease the distress associated with hair loss during treatment. Scalp cooling works by reducing blood flow to hair follicles, thus reducing the frequency and severity of hair loss for adult patients with breast cancer and other solid tumors who are receiving chemotherapy drugs that are associated with this common side effect. As a result, it may improve outcomes for our cancer patients.”

Plano Cancer Institute is currently one of the few private practice cancer clinics in the DFW area using the scalp cooling cap. Saez and colleagues started training in the technology more than a year ago with the intent of offering it as soon as it became locally available, and Teresa Payne is thankful to be an early beneficiary.

The 49-year-old wife and mother was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer earlier this year and underwent a double mastectomy. She is now in the midst of chemotherapy treatments with cytoxan and taxotere, a drug combination known to have a high probability of causing hair loss. With two treatments completed, she has had little of the unwanted side effect.

“I have an active lifestyle, a 14-year-old daughter, a husband and a job,” said Teresa. “With all of the doctor’s appointments, the mastectomy surgery and chemotherapy, you feel really overwhelmed. Keeping my hair has helped my family maintain a sense of ‘normalcy’ in our day-to-day lives. We almost forget sometimes that this is going on and it helps us know we can get through it.”

Several types of scalp cooling systems exist. Plano Cancer Institute uses a tightly fitted dual-cap device in which cold liquid is circulated through a silicone inner cap to cool the scalp before, during and after each of Payne’s chemotherapy treatments. The cap, which is connected to a machine that regulates the cooling process, is covered by an outer cap made of neoprene that acts as an insulator. The cap is placed on Payne’s head at room temperature and about 30 minutes before the start of her chemotherapy treatment, giving her time to acclimate to the cold and also receive steroids and anti-nausea infusions.

“Cooling the scalp to just above freezing causes blood vessels to constrict, which may limit the amount of chemotherapy drug that reaches hair follicles,” said Saez. “In order to be effective, the scalp must be cooled to the right temperature at the time when alopecia-inducing chemicals are present in the body. The cap stays on during Teresa’s entire treatment process and then several hours beyond to allow her body to re-acclimate to a normal temperature.”

When the cap is initially placed on Teresa’s head, she said she hears a crackling sound similar to ice breaking on a pond or lake. Tightness from the neoprene cap that wraps over the inner cap can cause a slight headache but Teresa has been prescribed acetaminophen to minimize any discomfort. Once the treatment gets going, her head becomes numb as the scalp cooling takes effect.

“When I tell people I am going through chemo, they are shocked and say they can’t tell. With the other side effects from the chemo, I can’t imagine going through this without the scalp cooling. My hair has always been shoulder length or longer. I have never worn it short so I can’t imagine wearing a long-haired wig or having to keep my head shaved. I would have had a hard time mentally with this.”

“I made the choice to use the scalp cooling cap because it helps me feel better about who I am and it has eased my concerns about hair loss during my treatment. I know that having a positive attitude promotes a better treatment outcome,” Teresa added.

Scalp cooling is not currently universally covered by insurance providers. To learn more about the technology and cancer care available through Texas Health Physicians Group practices, please visit THPG.org.