When medical oncologists treat cancer, they take on the disease with chemotherapy while simultaneously managing side effects like nausea and appetite changes. But for many women diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, another unwelcome and unavoidable side effect of treatment is hair loss.
Dr. Anasuya Gunturi, a medical oncologist and Associate Medical Director of Cancer Care Associates, says fear and anxiety over hair loss can be overwhelming for some women.
“Emotionally, it’s a huge thing,” she says. “Because of the fear of hair loss, there are women who forgo chemotherapy. It can go that deep.”
At Lowell General Hospital’s Cancer Center, physicians, nurses and staff treat the person, not just their disease. When Dr. Gunturi learned that certain major Boston cancer centers were offering a new treatment that used a technique known as scalp cooling to preserve hair, she wanted to bring it to her patients in Lowell.
The scalp cooling treatment now offered to patients at Lowell General uses a cooling cap, which is worn over the patient’s hair for a period of time before, during and after each chemotherapy treatment. It can be used for men and women, but is most commonly requested by women.
Cancer chemotherapy can cause hair loss because it attacks rapidly dividing cells, and hair follicles are the second-fastest reproducing cells in the human body. Scalp cooling reduces the flow of blood to the scalp, causing less of the chemotherapy medicine to reach the hair follicle.
Paxman, the company that makes the cooling system, points to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed scalp cooling prevented significant hair loss in about 50% of patients, with no severe adverse effects.
Jennifer Ziemba of Lowell, who is undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, is one of Dr. Gunturi’s first patients to try scalp cooling. Her hope is that by preserving her hair, people see her as the person she is, not someone coping with a disease.
She says the cap feels cold initially, but she quickly gets used to it and feels comfortable in the cap.
But unlike some other treatments, most insurances do not currently cover the scalp cooling. To help patients pay for it, funds generated from TeamWalk for CancerCare are being made available to defray some of the cost.
Though scalp cooling is a relatively new treatment offered, already more than a half-dozen women are using it, a much greater response than Dr. Gunturi expected at the outset.
She believes the interest is further proof of just how important it is to address the needs of each individual, not just the symptoms of their disease.
“As an oncologist, we talk so much about life and death, that sometimes we forget the things that truly motivate or deter our patients,” she says. “We shouldn’t underestimate that.”