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FOX Medical Team

Cold caps used to prevent hair loss during chemo

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ATLANTA -

Hair loss is one of the most visible -- and most hated -- signs of breast cancer. One Atlanta woman thinks she may have found a way to hang on to the hair she loves.

Jill Harrison is a mom, a lawyer, a dog lover and a breast cancer patient.

On the day that Harrison was diagnosed the first time back in 2010, her surgeon told her about a new therapy that might be able to keep her from losing her hair during chemotherapy.

"I had never heard of such a thing before. I was shocked to hear it and very excited," Harrison said.

Jill ordered cold caps from a company called Penguin. Her hair thinned, but it didn't fall out.

This spring, when the cancer came back, Jill ordered more cold caps.

"It was a no- brainer for me. It was successful the first time I did it, so there was no question in my mind I was going to do it again," Harrison said.

Now, when Jill goes to Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University for chemotherapy, her boyfriend brings along a cooler packed with gel-filled cold caps chilled on dry ice to a negative 35-45 degrees Fahrenheit.

About an hour before her infusion begins, they begin their ritual.

"It is like having a really bad ice cream headache," Harrison said.

Every 30 minutes, the caps are changed.

"So with each change of the cap, that coldness, especially for me right across the back, the tender part of your scalp in the back of the head is pretty cold," Harrison said.

It has to be because the caps are freezing Jill's scalp to reduce the blood flow to her hair follicles and keep them from absorbing the chemotherapy medication.

Almost every drug that's effective against breast cancer causes hair loss, so Jill's oncologist, Dr. Amelia Zelnak, says a growing number of patients -- especially mothers with young children, and professionals -- are using cold caps.

Jill rents them for about $500 a month. They're not FDA approved or covered by insurance.

"The question that needs to be answered is, ‘Do these patients have a higher risk of recurrent breast cancer because of using the cap,'" said Zelnak.  "We need to get a little bit more data on that before we can come out and say, 'Gosh this is 100 percent safe.'  But for some women who look at the data, they feel comfortable with the risk."

Jill isn't worried.

"With breast cancer, at least, there is little to no chance that breast cancer would metastasize in the scalp," she said.

Hanging on to her hair, takes work, and patience. But back home, Jill looks and feels like her old self -- which may be the best medicine of all.

There are several scalp-cooling devices on the market. None has been cleared by the FDA. But late this summer, researchers began studying a device called the Digni-Cap in a clinical trial. They're following 110 women with early stage breast cancer and comparing photographs of the hair of women who use the cap with the photos of women who got chemotherapy alone.

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