The average person sheds between 50 and 100 hairs a day — hardly noticeable on a scalp carrying 100,000 strands. To cancer patients, however, total hair loss (including the eyebrows and eyelashes) is quite common. Though the physical and emotional tolls of intensive chemotherapy and radiation can be utterly devastating, few people consider the impact hair loss has on women.
Breast cancer affects one out of every eight women living in the United States. As an external display of your battle with a deadly disease, hair loss can feel like salt in an open wound. To women, many of whom feel that their hair is an extension of themselves, this added agony can be unbearable.
“This is not about vanity. It is about women being able to keep their privacy. Using a hat or bandana declares to the community that something is going on with this person, and patients may not want to disclose that. It can be very distressing,” said Haytham Ali, M.D., senior medical oncologist for the Breast Cancer Program at Henry Ford Cancer Institute.
Hair loss as a result of chemotherapy occurs because the various class of drugs used all target rapidly diving cells — both healthy and cancerous. Hair follicles are some of the fastest-growing cells in the body, which is why losing 50 to 100 hairs a day has no real impact on your appearance. When chemo goes to work against cancer cells, it is also destroying hair cells. Fortunately, new developments in medical technology have allowed for a way to combat hair follicle death.
The Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit has invented an ice-free scalp cooling cap — called the Paxman scalp cooling system — to save women their hair. By keeping a uniform temperature of 64 degrees Fahrenheit on the scalp, blood vessels become constricted; this reduces the flow of chemotherapy drugs to the scalp, meaning that the hair follicles have less contact with the chemo and are therefore less likely to die. Patients sit with the constantly-flowing liquid cap before, during, and after chemotherapy treatments for a total of approximately four hours. It might not seem like much, but it is a boon to patients that don’t want others to know about their diagnosis.
“I came back to work after chemotherapy treatment and nobody knew my health status,” said Laura Carey, a 51-year-old corporate director at a major health system in Southeast Michigan. “I can be out with friends and family and they don’t focus on the fact that I’m sick. Even though it’s just the hair that they see, it may give them confidence that I’m still the same, or things are going to be OK.”
In addition to the personal power hair can provide during cancer treatments, it can also bolster the self-esteem of patients who received a mastectomy.
“The cooling cap is psychologically impactful,” said Dr. Ali. “The positive effects can strengthen a person’s ability to confront the disease.”
Your odds of developing breast cancer are twice as high if a first-degree (parent, child, sibling) female relative was previously diagnosed. One of the best ways to stay on top of your breast health is to get routine mammograms, especially if you’re above the age of 40. Though you may not be facing total hair loss thanks to the Paxman scalp cooling system, the risk of breast cancer simply isn’t worth being lazy.