A major side effect of chemotherapy treatment is hair loss. For many patients it can be a very challenging aspect of their cancer treatment. New research indicates that cold application can significantly reduce hair loss caused by chemotherapy. Although some minor side effects may occur, no serious side effects have been associated with cold application to the scalp during chemotherapy treatment. Some have questioned whether cold therapy may prevent chemotherapy from reaching cancer cells in the scalp–this risk appears to be low.
Chemotherapy works by killing rapidly dividing cells—cancer cells fall into this category and so do hair follicle cells. Chemotherapy can’t tell the difference between cancer cells and normal cells that also divide quickly, such as those in hair follicles. When chemotherapy attacks the hair follicles, it causes the hair to fall out.
In some cases, chemotherapy may only lead to thinning hair while in others, there is complete hair loss. For example, studies have shown that most of the chemotherapy drugs used to treat breast cancer cause almost total hair loss in most patients.
While losing your hair may sound like a small price to pay for preventing cancer from coming back, it’s a side effect that’s often hard to take. Not only can losing your hair be tough on your self-image, it’s also a vivid and constant reminder of a cancer diagnosis.
The idea of cooling the scalp to prevent hair loss is a long-standing concept. When cooled, the blood vessels in the scalp constrict, reducing blood flow to the hair follicles. That means less chemotherapy medication can get into the hair follicle cells. The cold also makes those cells less active, so chemotherapy drugs don’t target them as quickly.
In 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a cold cap to reduce hair loss in people undergoing chemotherapy. A recent study examined the effects of this cold cap on the scalp during chemotherapy treatment for early-stage breast cancer. Participants received cooling prior to and after chemotherapy treatment. For the more than 100 women in the study 66 percent experienced hair loss of 50 percent or less. This was then compared to a similar group undergoing chemotherapy that did not receive cooling. 100% of those patients lost more than 50% of their hair.
Several minor side effects were noted in this study, including chills, headaches, scalp irritation, and neck and shoulder discomfort.
Local cryotherapy is a great alternative to the cold cap. Local cryotherapy applies cold, dry directly to the scalp, both prior to and after chemotherapy treatment to vasoconstrict the blood vessels in hair follicles. This treatment prevents chemotherapy drugs from reaching the hair follicles, thus saving the hair. Local cryotherapy is less likely to cause the side effects associated with the cold cap since it is dry and a much faster application. Local cryotherapy treatments are roughly 5 minutes and occur at temperatures of roughly -220F. The cold cap requires direct contact between the scalp and the cold for up to 90 minutes; this can lead to the side effects noted above. Studies have shown that local cryotherapy causes the scalp to stay cold for up to 6 hours, without requiring direct contact with the cold for that time period.
Some health care providers have been concerned that cold therapy could prevent chemotherapy from reaching cancer cells that may be in the scalp, making the chemotherapy less effective. In people who have used cold therapy, reports of cancer appearing in the scalp are extremely rare. More research is needed, however, to clearly understand this potential risk.
Cold cap therapy is quite costly and some insurance companies do not cover the cost of cold cap therapy. Cold cap therapy may not be covered by insurance and hospitals generally charge $400 per session. In cases where cold therapy is not covered by insurance, local cryotherapy is an effective and safe option. Local cryotherapy treatments are 5 minutes or less and are in the $30 to $45 range.
Chill Cryotherapy offers a customized chemotherapy package for patients that offers local cryotherapy prior to and after chemotherapy. For just $50 per day this is a great value compared to the $400 per session charged for a cold cap.
Chill Cryotherapy is committed to reducing the emotional and physical pain related to cancer treatment for our clients.