Scalp cooling can save a cancer patient's hair

- For most women undergoing chemotherapy the inevitable hair loss is a constant reminder they're ill and is a public announcement of a private battle.

"Losing hair is an enormous, almost crippling side effect for some women when they hear about treatment," Dr. Paula Klein of Mount Sinai Health System said. "Patients cry all the time."

That was the case for Dr. Klein's patient Barbara Warnock-Morgan. She was diagnosed with breast cancer last December. Dr. Klein immediately told her about scalp cooling, a treatment done during each chemo session that is effective in helping breast cancer patients save most of their hair.

Chilling the scalp prevents chemotherapy drugs from getting to the hair follicles, Dr. Klein explained. Scalp cooling has helped thousands of women globally for over a decade. Now the United States has its first FDA-cleared treatment.

Mount Sinai Beth Israel was one of the cancer centers nationwide to take part in a trial program for the Dignatona and its DigniCap. Dr. Klein said the nurses and the machine do the work. The patient puts on the cap at the start of treatment and takes it off at the end. The Dignatona trial did exclude certain drugs that are often found in more aggressive regimens. Even still, the results overall were impressive.

"The success was defined as an ability to lose less than 50 percent of your hair or to not need to wear a hairpiece or a wig was about 70 percent," Dr. Klein said. "So it can be quite effective

But patients have other options. Manual cold caps, like the Penguin, have strong success. But the labor falls on the patient because the caps are not FDA-approved. Warnock-Morgan is responsible for bringing her caps to and from every treatment. And unlike the automated DigniCap, she has to hire a capper to rotate her equipment every 20 to 30 minutes.

"It's very uncomfortable. It hurts. It actually feels like someone is stabbing your brain when they first put it on because it is so cold," Warnock-Morgan said. "You can feel the muscles in your head, in your scalp and forehead tense."

But for her, the temporary brain-freeze has been worth it.

"I had my doubts halfway through when I started losing some of my hair, when it started shedding," Warnock-Morgan said. "But in the long run, yeah it's worth it."

Both scalp-cooling systems are offered throughout the Mount Sinai Health System. These procedures do cost thousands of dollars and are not yet covered by insurance but funding is available. 

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