These cooling caps help limit hair loss in breast cancer patients

Breast cancer patient Susanne Ostlund rubs her head before trying on a wig at the Friend to Friend store at the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center August 17, 2005 in San Francisco, California. The study, which tracks patients over five years, used standardized photographs to grade hair loss.

The studies were published in February in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

She is one of about 50 per cent of patients who respond well to scalp cooling treatment to prevent hair loss - one of the most distressing side effects of chemotherapy reported by patients.

Ms Bell said while some people would find scalp cooling too uncomfortable or not worth the effort (it added time to her visits to hospital), she was grateful for keeping almost all of her hair and she experienced no side effects.

More than half of women fitted with cooling caps kept their hair during chemotherapy in the world's first randomized clinical trial of the devices, said lead researcher Dr. Julie Nangia, an assistant professor and breast cancer expert with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The women had either stage I or II breast cancer.

Scalp cooling has been used in more than 30 countries as a way to potentially prevent hair loss in patients receiving chemotherapy; in Europe it's been used for several decades.

Unfortunately the cooling caps aren't widely available yet, and they don't come cheap. "With scalp cooling, we are lowering the temperature of the scalp, thereby constricting the blood vessels and reducing the flow of blood to the hair follicles, which will help reduce hair loss by limiting the amount of chemo drugs reaching the follicles".

Or it may be that cold slows the growth of hair follicles, making them less susceptible to damage from chemotherapy, which targets rapidly dividing cells.

Two other studies have since compared scalp metastasis in hundreds of patients who had scalp cooling and a group who did not.

The study involved 122 women with stage 1 or stage 2 breast cancer, all of whom received non-anthracycline adjuvant chemotherapy, which generally causes severe hair loss. Of those women, 101 were enrolled in scalp cooling; 16 others, also undergoing chemotherapy but not scalp cooling, were in the control arm. The team reported that 142 women that were randomly assigned to no scalp cooling while receiving their chemotherapy treatment. The two-cap system ensures the coolant stays at a consistent temperature and is connected to a small machine, which can be briefly detached from the patient to allow for greater mobility during sessions.

All the control group lost their hair.

There were very few adverse effects in the group who received scalp cooling cap treatment too. Success was defined as less than 50 per cent hair loss. A handful of women using the cap reported mild headaches and only three dropped out due to feeling cold.

The study was funded partially by the Lazlo Tauber Family Foundation (awarded to UCSF); the Anne Moore Breast Cancer Research Fund (awarded to Weill Cornell Medicine); and the Friedman Family Foundation (awarded to Mount Sinai Beth Israel).

  • Joanne Flowers