To Dr. Hope Rugo of the University of California, San Francisco, the impact of hair loss has been overlooked, even belittled, by health providers. She's had patients delay crucial treatment to avoid it, and others whose businesses suffered when clients saw they were sick and shied away.
With more people surviving cancer, "we need to make this experience as tolerable as possible, so there's the least baggage at the end," Rugo said.
"Quite frankly, it's the first or second question out of most patients' mouths when I tell them I recommend chemotherapy. It's not, 'Is this going to cure me? It's, 'Am I going to lose my hair?'" adds Dr. Susan Melin of North Carolina's Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
Later this summer, Rugo and Melin, along with researchers at a few other hospitals in New York and California, will begin enrolling 110 early stage breast cancer patients in a study of the DigniCap brand of scalp cooling. The tight-fitting, insulated cap is attached to a cooling machine to stay around a shivery 41 degrees as patients undergo chemo. Participants' hair will be photographed for experts to assess, and they'll be compared with a small group of similarly ill patients who get chemo alone.
Lipton was among 20 U.S. patients who pilot-tested the DigniCap in 2011, most of whom kept more than half of their hair. Lipton's thinned quite a bit at the crown, where the cap didn't fit snugly. But because her bangs and surrounding hair remained, the mother of two covered the thinning with a headband, not a wig. The side effect: Pain and a headache as the cold set in.
"It wasn't perfect, but it was easier," said Lipton, who's healthy today. "I felt normal much more quickly."