CLEVELAND, Ohio — Jennifer Buckland of Willoughby faced her breast cancer diagnosis by gathering hats, scarves and a wig, expecting that chemotherapy would cause her hair to fall out.
But thanks to a helmet filled with a cooling liquid, she didn’t go bald. The experimental cooling cap worn during chemotherapy felt like the worst ice-cream headache ever, but it preserved her strawberry-blonde locks.
“I had just a little bit of thinning hair,” said Buckland, a physical therapist for the Cleveland Clinic’s Euclid outpatient clinic who, with her husband Erik, is rearing two young children. “I was shocked that (my hair) stayed.”
Buckland, 42, was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in May 2015, and underwent a mastectomy a month later. She participated in a Cleveland Clinic study, which was part of a national trial testing the effectiveness of a scalp-cooling cap, which received FDA approval in April. Read more about the device in this JAMA article.
The device will help millions of patients who fear the stigma of hair loss during cancer treatment, said Dr. Jame Abraham, director of the breast medical oncology program at the Cleveland Clinic. He led the cooling cap trial at the Clinic and was Buckland’s physician.
Chemotherapy attacks fast-growing cancer cells, as well as other fast-growing areas of the body such as blood cells and hair follicles. The scalp-cooling cap constricts the capillaries around the hair follicles, decreasing the amount of chemotherapy drugs that the follicles receive, Abraham explained.
The cooling cap looks like a motorcycle helmet. It is strapped tightly to the patient’s head before, during and after each chemotherapy treatment. Using the cap lengthens a typical four-hour chemotherapy session by two hours, because the cap must be in place for 30 minutes before and 90 minutes after the chemo drugs are released into the body, Abraham said.
When coolant fluid was pumped into the cap, it chilled Buckland’s head to below freezing. “I had ice crystals in my hair,” she said, because her hair was spritzed with water before the cap was put on. The strap around her jaw was uncomfortably tight. Hot soup and a warm blanket helped keep her more comfortable during weekly chemo sessions, which lasted 12 weeks, she said.
She did lose her eyebrows and eyelashes. “For sure, I would have lost (more) hair without the cooling cap,” she said.
“It was great to maintain some sense of normalcy,” she said. Keeping her hair also made her cancer journey easier for her children Zachary, 4, and Ava, 8.
Study participants were chosen at random to either receive the cap or be in the control group, Abraham said. Of the 182 breast cancer patients in the national study, those who used the cap kept all of their hair or experienced thinning hair. Everyone in the control group had major hair loss, he said. The national study will continue to follow study participants for up to 10 years.
The Clinic was one of seven medical centers around the country that participated in the cooling-cap study. About 15 Clinic patients participated.
There are similar devices on the market, but they use dry ice that must be replenished every 15 minutes. The scalp cooling cap is more convenient and will be on the market later this year, Abraham said.
When asked how she’s feeling these days, Buckland answered, “I’m thriving. Not surviving. I’m thriving.” She has another reconstructive surgery scheduled, and felt well enough to go from part-time to full-time work.
Buckland encourages other breast cancer patients to try the cooling cap. “(Your hair) is one less thing you have to lose, because you lose a lot. It changes your life dramatically,” Buckland said. “This is one piece that stays intact.”
Since she was able to keep her hair, she can give away her scarves and hats to other cancer patients.
“I need to donate them, because I didn’t use them,” Buckland said.