MANKATO — Hair loss has long been a price patients reluctantly pay for some cancer treatment.
The side effect of chemotherapy makes an already stressful process even more difficult.
Some hair loss could be staved off, however, by wearing a new type of headgear now available in Mankato.
Mayo Clinic Health System has added “cool cap therapy” at its Mankato, New Prague and Fairmont facilities. The helmet-like cap, which circulates cold liquid to cool the scalp, is worn before, during and after each chemotherapy session.
Studies found 66 percent of breast cancer patients using the technology experienced less than 50 percent of hair loss. So it doesn’t prevent all hair loss from chemo, but Mayo oncologist Dr. Amrit Singh said it addresses a common concern among patients with cancer.
“Personally I’ve had patients who refused chemotherapy only because of hair loss, and they needed it,” he said.
He said every one of his patients asks about hair loss when they find out they need chemo. Women in particular express apprehension, although some men do as well.
Patients will own their caps, fitted to their specifications. The caps are hooked up to computers in the hospital’s infusion center, where patients receive chemotherapy on a weekly or biweekly basis.
The system maintains the liquid’s temperature at about 32 degrees. The cold constricts blood vessels in the scalp, restricting blood flow to hair follicles. It ends up reducing how much chemotherapy medication ends up in hair follicle cells.
Tracy Culbertson, Mayo's regional nurse manager for oncology, demonstrated how the caps work Friday before the first patient to use them came in to start chemotherapy treatment. She said the fit is snug and a user can feel the liquid cooling the cap. She said patients previously would've had to travel to Rochester or farther to access cool caps.
“I’ve had phone calls prior to us getting this of patients saying, ‘Do you have it? And if not, I’m going to go elsewhere,’” she said.
The best results come when the patient wears the cap throughout chemotherapy treatment. A typical regimen includes wearing the cap 30 minutes before, during the entirety of each chemo session and up to 90 minutes afterward.
The caps wouldn’t be available to patients receiving certain types of chemotherapy causing cold sensitivity. Common side effects for those who can wear them include chills and headaches.
Some insurance plans cover cool cap therapy, Singh said. The manufacturer, Paxman, also has a fund to help cover costs for patients below the national poverty level.