Studies: chemo hair loss treatments work

Results show scalp-cooling systems are safe and effective for breast cancer patients
Feb. 14, 2017

Two just-released studies suggest that complete hair loss is no longer inevitable for women undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

The studies, which appear in the Feb. 14 issue of JAMA, examined the use of two different scalp-cooling devices to reduce hair loss, or alopecia, in women with early-stage breast cancer. The devices – the DigniCap and the Orbis Paxman Hair Loss Prevention System – both include caps that fit over the skull and are connected to a machine that delivers temperature-regulated coolant to the scalp.

The idea is that the chilled hair follicles will absorb less of the toxic chemotherapy drugs, thereby keeping more of them intact – and more hair on the patient’s head.

The data indicate the devices are effective. In both studies, more than half of the women who used the devices before, during and after chemotherapy lost less than half their hair. All of the women in the control groups lost half of their hair or more.

cap with wires
The DigniCap is the first FDA-approved scalp-cooling system to prevent hair loss in breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

Two-thirds of the women enrolled in the study who wore the DigniCap lost half their hair or less. The device, which was approved by the FDA in December 2015, is used at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. It is the only FDA-approved scalp-cooling device, while the Orbis is awaiting FDA approval.

“The importance of the studies is that they highlight a process by which women can prevent hair loss while receiving chemotherapy for early-stage breast cancer,” said Virginia Borges, MD, medical oncologist with the University of Colorado Cancer Center. “It is clinical research and scientific evidence confirming that these devices protect significantly against the hair loss that accompanies standard chemotherapy and that they appear to be safe and without any untoward consequences for the people who use them.”

Borges emphasized the importance of preventing hair loss for women already facing and dealing with the physical rigors of chemotherapy.

DR. Virginia Borges
Virginia Borges, MD, medical oncologist with the University of Colorado Cancer Center, says reducing hair loss helps preserve dignity and privacy for breast cancer patients.

“It improves the dignity involved with the treatment, the sense of control that women feel they can have, and the privacy they have around their medical diagnoses,” she said. “And in my clinical experience of offering hair loss protection, I think it actually enhances the pace at which women recover from their breast cancer treatment because I think there is less of an emotional hit and less of a change in their sense of self. It seems like they bounce back faster.”

For now, coverage of chemotherapy hair-loss treatment depends on the insurance company, Borges said. “We want to encourage all [companies] to think about this.”

The JAMA studies and stories addressing them could speed that process, she added.

“People will be more aware and consumers will advocate for themselves that they want this,” Borges said. “Sometimes you will hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s just hair.’ But the bottom line is, it’s not just hair. There is a lot more that goes into preserving someone’s appearance while they are undergoing a very fear-ridden and loss of control-driven process.”

About the author

Tyler Smith has been a health care writer, with a focus on hospitals, since 1996. He served as a writer and editor for the Marketing and Communications team at University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth from 2007 to 2017. More recently, he has reported for and contributed stories to the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Colorado School of Public Health and the Colorado Bioscience Association.