When the dreaded diagnosis of breast cancer came in May, several thoughts raced through Carolyn Dempsey’s panicked mind.
“First was, ‘Will I live? Will I get to see my children grow up?’ ” recalled the New Jersey music teacher and mother of three. “Next was, ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’ ”
Dempsey, 44, said she assumed losing her signature blond ponytail and going bald would be part of the physical and psychological assault of chemotherapy, along with the nausea and fatigue. But she was prepared to face it all.
Until a friend told her about a little-known scalp-cooling technique which has been shown to prevent chemo-induced hair loss for patients with early-stage breast cancer.
Dempsey eventually found her way to the Weill Cornell Breast Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where Dr. Tessa Cigler is heading up a research trial on DigniCap, a Swedish device that has been successfully used in Europe since 1999, but not available in the United States.
That may change in 2015, when New York researchers along with doctors in California and North Carolina, present their promising findings to the FDA.
“Cold-cap therapy is empowering,” said Cigler, the lead researcher for Weill Cornell’s ongoing clinical trial. “It allows women to maintain their self-esteem and sense of well-being, as well as to protect their privacy.
“Without these caps, 100% of the women lose their hair by the second treatment,” she added.
Marta Vallee-Cobham, the clinical research nurse for the trial, said that DigniCap would be a game changer for thousands of American women and men, as it has been overseas.
“For those of us who have been giving chemo for so long, to see that finally there is something to provide confidence to patients is exciting,” said Vallee-Cobham. “When you can offer this, the world changes. You see it in our patients’ whole outlook as they deal with cancer.”
While sitting in a reclining chair receiving chemo infusion, a snug-fitting silicone cap is fitted onto the patient’s head. The cap is hooked up to a refrigeration unit which cools the scalp to 37 degrees.
The cold constricts the scalp’s blood vessels, which limits the chemo from reaching and killing off hair follicle cells.
“We are very encouraged by the number of patients who have been able to keep their hair,” Cigler said.
Dempsey said she felt so fortunate to find out about the trial in time. She also worried that being bald would frighten her children — ages 12, 9 and 6.
“Not having that reminder every time you look in the mirror that you are sick, and you look normal to your family made the chemo much more bearable,” said Dempsey, who lost some hair on top of her head. “Instead of illness, I saw myself. Many people had no idea I had cancer.”
She and her husband, Brian, also felt strongly about getting the word out about DigniCap as well as the Penguin cap which has been in use, but much more difficult to use as friends or family have to bring dry ice to the oncology center and change the cap every 30 minutes for a set amount of time — before, during and after chemo.
“When Carolyn was diagnosed, we were given Xeroxes with a list of wig makers, but there was no mention of cold caps or DigniCaps,” said Brian Dempsey, a Manhattan graphic designer.
During her final chemo treatment last week at Weill Cornell, breast cancer patient Lauren Desharnais was ecstatic.
As Vallee-Cobham lifted off the cap, Desharnais, who traveled three hours from Albany for her treatments, was amazed when she put her fingers through her scalp.
“It’s startling that my hair is still here!” she said, beaming. She got up from the chair, threw on her trench coat and some pink lipstick, and walked out of the hospital onto the streets of Manhattan. No one would ever know she had been sick.
“It’s no one’s business if you have cancer,” Desharnais said. “This way, you tell who you wish to tell. I’m outraged that in Europe they’ve had this technique for years and not here.”
HOW IT WORKS
The DigniCap sits at room temperature when placed snugly on the patient’s moistened head 30 minutes before the chemotherapy infusion begins.
The cap, with its internal coils, is hooked up to a refrigeration unit which gradually cools the cap down to 37 degrees. The cooling cap is kept on during the chemo infusion, and then for another 1-2 hours after the infusion.
To minimize any hair loss, patients are advised to put little stress on the hair and scalp, limit washing hair to two times a week, avoid using heat from blow-dryers, curling irons or rollers. Limit brushing or combing hair or coloring hair.
The Weill Cornell Breast Center has an active cold-cap program. For more information, call (212) 821-0644 or go to www.cornellbreastcenter.com.