Cold caps prevent hair loss during chemotherapy

Devices freeze hair follicles

DAVIE, Fla. - When personal trainer Sunny Steurer was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2012, her mind started racing.

"The first thing I asked my oncologist is, 'What are the side effects? Do I lose my hair?' and she said 'Yes,'" Steurer said.

For a moment, she considered not undergoing treatment.

"I'm in public all the time. I didn't want to look sick," she said.

Memorial Healthcare breast cancer specialist Dr. Alejandra Perez said hair loss is one of the most traumatic side effects of treatment for many women.

"I've had patients refuse chemotherapy, which is a life-saving intervention, because they don't want to lose their hair," Perez said.

Steurer searched the internet and found a device called the Penguin Cold Cap, one of several available which helps prevent hair loss during chemotherapy.

"These caps freeze the hair follicles and prevent chemotherapy from reaching the scalp," said Perez.

"The first 10 minutes when you get it on, you want to rip it off, it's so freaking cold, but after 10 minutes, you don't feel it anymore. It's fine," Steurer said.

Perez said the cold caps are effective in about 90 percent of patients.

"There is some hair loss but most patients are able to keep most of their hair," said Perez.

The caps cost around $2,500, which is not covered by insurance. 

Undergoing the process is also cumbersome and time consuming.

"The night before, I would have to get dry ice, and then in the morning of treatment, put the caps on the ice so they get down to the necessary temperature," said Steurer.  "Then you have to put it on an hour before starting chemo, keep it on during chemo, then wear it for another four hours after chemo. You have to have somebody help you switch out the caps every 20 minutes. You can't do this yourself," Steurer said.

In the past, there were also health concerns about the cold caps.

"There was a case where a woman's cancer metastasized to her scalp, so many doctors backed away from using these. Since then, we learned that case was rare, and the woman's cancer had metastasized to other parts of her body as well so the fears were somewhat abated," said Perez.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco are currently studying the safety and efficacy of the caps, which are not yet approved for this use by the Food and Drug Administration.

"Just because it's not FDA approved doesn't mean we won't utilize this therapy to help our patients," said Perez.

Steurer was glad she invested the time and money to use the cold cap.

"A lot of women don't know this exists and I want to get the word out there. When you go through chemo, you don't have to lose your hair," Steurer said.

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