Say the word "chemo" and what comes to mind? Cancer? Nausea? Hair loss? It seems that final association is, for some, becoming a thing of the past. The New York Times reports that some breast cancer patients are hanging on to the hair on their head, even as other hair falls out, by literally freezing their scalps. The technology isn't new: The nonprofit Rapunzel Project reports cold-cap therapy has been used in Europe for two decades, but pilot programs are now beginning to appear throughout the US. WFSB in the fall reported on one such program at Connecticut's Norwalk Hospital, which is using the Penguin Cold Cap. The gel-filled, swim-cap-like device is frozen to roughly minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit and is worn for seven hours before, during, and after chemo—putting the hair follicles in a state of hibernation so they don't absorb the chemo drugs.
"It's like a brain freeze you get when you're eating ice cream," one patient told WFSB, and that's not the only uncomfortable element. A new frozen cap must be applied after 30 minutes; considering the length of the process, the Times reports some women spend up to $750 a day on "cappers"—people hired to take the caps on and off. That's on top of what WFSB reports is about a $2,000 cost to rent the caps. Insurance rarely covers the expense, though the Times reports that could change if the FDA approves a brand called DigniCap, which was the subject of a pilot study whose results haven't been published yet. In the hospital's two years of offering the Penguin cap, 15 women have lost no more than 20% of the hair on their head, though Dr. Richard Zelkowitz notes, "You can only use it in certain chemotherapy regimens." To wit, the Times reports patients with blood cancer should not use it. (This dog lies down when he smells cancer.)