Bailey Anne Vincent

Imagine being diagnosed with cancer … without having to lose your hair.

This is exactly what a new technology suggests, as reported recently on Fox News and ABC. Cold caps - as the concept is being called- used frequently in Europe and Canada is gaining speed and notoriety in the US. The helmet-like cap may be odd in appearance, but has already been proven to help patients maintain their locks by completely numbing the scalp during chemotherapy treatments.

“Frankly,” says Dr. Susan Melin of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, “It’s the first or second question out of most patients’ mouths when I tell them I recommend chemotherapy.” Although hair loss is often overlooked as a negative side effect of chemo in stark contrast to the threat of cancer overall, some patients claim it needs more attention. The outside appearances of illness can not only hinder lives and businesses far more than a discreet sickness, but also enormously impact self-worth, esteem and overall moral. “I know I’m sick … But I don’t want to look it,” explains Baltimore patient Vanessa Thomas. Midway through her chemo treatments, she notes only mild thinning to her hair using a “cold cap,” whereas full loss would typically be evident at this stage.

In contrast, many other patients advocate for self-acceptance when undergoing a battle with cancer. In a recent time-lapse video posted on a personal blog, Emily Helck showcased the ravaging process of chemotherapy and cancer treatments on the body. Regarding her undocumented double mastectomy prior to the video project, Emily explained: “I can’t remember what it looked like when the surgeon removed my bandages for the first time - in my memory, I’m watching myself from across the room.” Hence the idea for digital documentation, which Helck hopes will provide inspiration for others to face their illness head on. “With chemo, I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen,” she says, “It started out just being about the hair loss and regrowth, but my body continued to change drastically too.”

Although the Food and Drug Administration has not approved use of these cold caps in the US, some researchers are preparing to undergo trials in the states this year. Various early breast cancer patients will be studied while using the DigniCap, but many others have already seen success by renting a pricey counterpart from England known as the Penguin cap. As interest in this popular European alternative increases, Sweden is preparing to market their technology to the US in the near future as well (per the FDA’s approval). Since temperatures of the almost-freezing level hinder harmful chemo drugs to reach the follicles of the scalp, these chilly hats are believed to slow or even halt the process of loss altogether. Meanwhile, many physicians remain skeptical because of an increased risk of insufficient treatment, or cancer cells remaining in the scalp that would have previously been abolished.

Miriam Lipton, who tested a DigniCap says, “It wasn’t perfect … but it was easier.” Although she maintained the majority of her hair, she lost some near her scalp where the cap didn’t fit tightly enough, and complained of increased pain and headaches from the 41-degree temperature of the cap. Still, since it was nothing a headband couldn’t cover, she feels it was well worth the effort.

“If you look OK on the outside,” Lipton concludes, “It helps you feel- OK, this is manageable.”