Scalp-cooling technology may help some chemo patients keep their hair

A non-profit is working to get the word out about a treatment that can help cancer patients do what many think isn’t possible: keep their hair during chemotherapy.

After a breast cancer diagnosis, Ingrid Harger, the wife of KIRO Newsradio Director Charlie Harger, was told she would need chemotherapy in addition to surgery.

“The first question I asked my oncologist was, ‘Will I lose my hair?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’”

For many patients, particularly women, hair loss is one of the most dreaded side effects of chemotherapy, which is a drug treatment that kills fast-growing cells in a person’s body.

Ingrid Harger says that’s because it’s not just about hair.

“A lot of times you’re losing a part of your body, and your sense of femininity is just rocked, and you don’t even feel like yourself anymore,” Ingrid Harger said. “And, to add insult to injury, you’re losing your hair, which for a lot of women and for myself it was part of my identity.”

Fortunately, she said her doctor also mentioned scalp-cooling technology. In some cases, it helps patients keep their hair during chemo.

Nancy Marshall, the co-founder of The Rapunzel Project, shared information about how it works, including why the cold plays such a key role.

“The cold constricts the blood vessels that lead to the hair follicles, and if there’s very little blood flow to the hair cells in the scalp, then basically the chemo drugs don’t get there,” Marshall said.

Looking more at cold caps

She added patients can use cold caps, which are chilled with dry ice or use machines that keep the scalp cold.

Ingrid Harger used the latter.

“It’s basically an ice cap. It’s very cold so when they turn it on it feels like a giant brain freeze,” she said. “But then after that you kind of go numb and so it’s not so bad.”

Ingrid Harger says she used it during each chemotherapy session and kept most of her hair.

But for patients hoping to do the same, she cautions that the technology is not widely available.

“I actually had to switch cancer centers to seek out a center that had this equipment and that would allow me to do it, because it’s not allowed everywhere,” Ingrid Harger said.

And she had to pay out of pocket to get the treatment.

Marshall said renting a cold cap can cost between $1500 and $2000. Machine systems typically run between $2000 and $2500.

She added that some insurance companies are “starting” to cover the treatment, but there are still a large number of roadblocks.

“Every policy has different exclusions every policy has different deductibles,” Marshall said. “There are so many rules and regulations in insurance that most people just throw their hands up.”

Marshall says The Rapunzel Project not only gets the word out about cold cooling technology, but it also helps put patients in contact with providers and groups offering financial aid. That’s, again, because this isn’t just about hair.

“It’s not a vanity thing,” Marshall said. “It’s identity, it’s empowerment. It’s privacy.”

She said it’s the ability to go through treatment without always looking — and sometimes, not even feeling — like a cancer patient.

“It’s a mental health thing for me, at least, and I think for many others that I’ve talked to,” Ingrid Harger said.

For more information about scalp cooling technology, head here to reach The Rapunzel Project.

This story was optionally published on the MyNorthwest website.

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