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Many women with breast cancer consider hair loss one of the most traumatic things about chemotherapy. Some turn to cooling caps to help prevent baldness, but they haven't been studied extensively in the U.S., and they don't always work. Now researchers say a new kind of cooling cap system used before and during chemo could help prevent baldness. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: When Shawna Mayberry was 58 years old and diagnosed with breast cancer, she expected to lose her hair during chemotherapy, but she didn't. She was part of a study looking at the effectiveness of a cooling cap system that covers the scalp and delivers liquid coolant before, during and after chemo.
SHAWNA MAYBERRY: You know what it felt like? I used to live in Indiana, and in the summer, we had an outdoor pool. And I was on the swim team. And I loved diving in that water when it was kind of cold because it gives you a rush. This was the same thing.
NEIGHMOND: Even comforting, she says. Now, not everyone in this study felt this way. Some experience discomfort or headaches. Others dropped out of a study because the cold was too much to bear. But for patients like Mayberry who used the cap during every session of chemo hair loss was reduced by at least half.
MAYBERRY: That helped me feel normal. When I looked in the mirror, I saw me. I didn't see someone that was ill. And that was wonderful.
NEIGHMOND: Now, Mayberry's hair thinned a bit, she says, but not much. She didn't need a scarf or a wig. And when people found out she was on chemo, they couldn't believe it. Oncologist Julie Nangia headed the study.
JULIE NANGIA: We found that half of the women who used the scalp-cooling device kept their hair - at least half of their hair and not needing to use a wig.
NEIGHMOND: Women in the control group did not use the cooling device.
NANGIA: Nobody kept their hair, so there was a hundred percent hair loss.
NEIGHMOND: A second study also in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association had similar results. Women who wore the cap reduced their hair loss by at least 50 percent. Nangia says the findings are one more step toward better treatments and therapies for breast cancer patients.
NANGIA: And I think it's nice now to have two good studies that really are focusing on quality of life to make that cancer journey easier for women.
NEIGHMOND: Researchers don't know exactly how the cap works. It could be the cold temperatures constrict blood vessels and prevent chemo drugs from getting to hair follicles, or it could be the cold slows metabolism of hair cells and reduces the uptake of the drugs. Oncologist Leonard Lichtenfeld with the American Cancer Society...
LEONARD LICHTENFELD: By slowing down those cells, whatever the mechanism may be - by starving their blood flow or slowing them down straightforwardly - has the net benefit of causing the hair not to fall out.
LICHTENFELD: Cooling treatment is evolving, he says, and researchers should make sure inhibiting the effect of chemotherapy doesn't cause metastasis in the scalp later on.
LICHTENFELD: Breast cancer is a disease that can take a long time until it comes back. One wants to be absolutely 100 percent certain, then you need that long period of time to answer the question.
NEIGHMOND: Both studies plan to answer that question over the long term and follow up with patients for at least five years. Treatment with the cooling cap system isn't cheap. It can cost up to $3,000 and is usually not covered by insurance. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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