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Can hair loss from chemotherapy be prevented?

Published on | Kylie Chin

Senior woman combing her hair at dresser in houseHair loss (alopecia) is an unfortunate side effect of chemotherapy, but breast cancer researchers are experimenting with scalp hypothermia (cryotherapy or cold-cap therapy)—a technique that uses a special head-cap to protect against chemo-induced alopecia. According to the NY Daily News, a scalp-cooling device known as a DigniCap may soon be available in the U.S., and some doctors are confident these devices can prevent hair loss from chemotherapy.

“We are very encouraged by the number of patients who have been able to keep their hair,” says Dr. Tessa Cigler, head researcher at Weill Cornell Breast Center, a treatment center where cold-cap devices are currently being tested. “Without these caps, 100% of the women lose their hair by the second treatment.”

If approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the DigniCap—which has already been used in England since 1999—could be authorized for use in chemotherapy treatment centers as early as 2015. Medical testing for cold-cap therapy is also being conducted in California and North Carolina.

How does chemotherapy cause hair loss?

Cancer-related alopecia occurs when chemo attacks and destroys hair follicle cells. In some cases, chemotherapy can cause hair loss throughout the entire body, but this is not always permanent. Many patients regrow their hair within a year after receiving treatment—although some people notice a temporary color and or texture change.

Depending on the type and dosage of the cancer treatment prescribed, patients may experience different side effects—this can sometimes be thinning, partial hair loss, complete hair loss, or no hair loss at all. Many patients also report feeling mild to severe nausea.

Cold-cap Therapy Process

Cold temperature silicone caps such as the DigniCap provide a cooling effect that narrows blood vessels in the scalp and restricts chemo from attacking hair follicle cells. While the cold-cap is designed to protect hair on the scalp, other areas of the body may still be susceptible to alopecia.

To minimize hair loss, the DigniCap is placed on the patient’s head approximately a half hour before undergoing chemotherapy. A special cooling unit (known as the DigniC3) is connected to the silicone cap, which uses coils to chill the scalp to 37 degrees. The cold-cap is worn both during the chemotherapy process as well as 1-2 hours after receiving treatment.

Recommendation: Avoid putting unnecessary stress on your hair

Although there is no absolute guarantee the DigniCap will stop alopecia completely, doctors recommend taking some extra precautions to minimize the risk of hair loss. Limiting unnecessary strain to the scalp from heat (blow dryers or flat irons), brushing, or hair color products may help minimize the chance of developing cancer-related alopecia. Also, doctors recommend cancer patients only wash their hair about twice a week.

Critics of Cold-cap Therapy

Some doctors argue that cold-caps are not suitable in all cases. According to Cancer Research UK, thinning, partial, or complete hair loss can still occur even when a cold-cap is used.

Doctors are also discussing the possibility that some cancer drugs (e.g. Adriamycin) may have an effect on the success of cooling techniques used in chemotherapy treatment. Because cold-caps restrict chemo to portions of the head, others fear that some cancer may be left behind in the scalp.


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