For patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer, hair loss is one of the most common—and disruptive—side effects of the drugs, which concurrently impact hair follicle cells while targeting rapidly dividing cancer cells. In fact, it can deter patients from seeking treatment at all. “Studies show that as many as eight percent of women will decline chemotherapy because of hair loss,” notes Steven Isakoff, MD, PhD, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
Dr. Isakoff’s patient Maria Winthrop was determined to find a way to maintain her normalcy—including her hair—while undergoing treatment for breast cancer in 2010. As a patient at another hospital, she tried a low-tech version of a scalp cooling technique in wider use throughout Europe. “Scalp cooling slows the metabolic process that drives cell division,” explains Dr. Isakoff. “It puts the follicles in a hibernation state, so they are less susceptible to the chemotherapy effect.”
It worked for Maria, preserving her fine, long hair—and her sense of self—through treatment. So when Maria transitioned her care for recurrent breast cancer to Dr. Isakoff, she worked closely with him to bring the treatment to MGH. “He is such a patient advocate,” Maria says. “That’s what attracted me to go to him. And he was interested in the cold caps.”
The treatment is now offered to patients at the Mass General Cancer Center’s Boston, Waltham, and Danvers campuses, and has helped more than three dozen patients—mostly patients with breast cancer—to date. Maria and her husband, Earl, are helping more patients to afford the costly treatment, typically not covered by insurance, through an Innovation in Breast Cancer Treatment Fund they established.
“It’s just so important to educate people — to make them aware that there are options to enable you to maintain a positive attitude and take charge,” says Maria.
Read more about the MGH scalp cooling initiative here.