SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — For many cancer patients, especially women, losing your hair during treatment can be devastating. But Bay Area scientists are testing an unusual device that may spare the hair.

Six months ago, Melissa Lisbon found out she had breast cancer. “I was very surprised and definitely probably in shock,” said the young, quiet spoken woman.

For Lisbon, the diagnosis meant surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. While treatment is effective, it can be brutal.

“You go through surgery and chemo in some cases and radiation and you lose, sometimes you lose that sense of being a woman,” she said.

With chemotherapy, Lisbon braced herself for losing her hair. Then she was told by her doctor about a clinical trial involving a strange device. If it worked, Melissa’s hair would be spared.

Melissa didn’t blink an eye, she immediately signed up.

The device is called the “Dignicap.” It cools the scalp continuously during chemotherapy.

According to researchers, cooling the scalp reduces the blood flow to the scalp and hair follicles, constricting the blood vessels. Less blood means less damage to follicles causing hair loss.

Before receiving chemotherapy, a researcher puts the tight fitting cooling cap directly on Lisbon’s head. The cap contains tubes through which coolant is pumped. Then, an outer cap is placed on top to keep in the cold. The caps are connected to an external cooling unit.

“Over a period of time, the cap goes down to 5 degrees centigrade, “explained Dr. Hope Rugo, who heads the Dignicap trial at UCSF Medical Center. 5 degrees Celsius is 41 degrees Fahrenheit, as cold as the inside of a fridge.

Lisbon wears the cap during her chemotherapy treatment and for about an hour afterward.

While the device does not always work, Rugo said she has seen cases where women come away with a full head of hair.

“I’ve had a couple of women very successfully use the cap throughout their chemotherapy and not lose their hair,” Rugo said.

The Dignicap is widely used in Europe, but not in the United States out of concern the cooling would allow cancer cells to hide in the scalp. Rugo said that’s highly unlikely, saying “I’m not really worried about the scalp anymore.”

Most women lose their hair by the fifth week of treatment, but Lisbon did not. When CBS 5 HealthWatch interviewed Lisbon for this story, she was 8 weeks into treatment.

Lisbon is pleased. “By having your hair going through cancer treatment at least from my experience it’s giving me just a positive sort of motivation that I can get through the treatment,” she said.

Because Lisbon is not bald, she also does not have people looking at her and immediately assuming she is a cancer patient. She maintains some control and dignity.

If shown safe and effective, the cap could be available to U.S. cancer patients in just a few years.

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Comments (10)
  1. In the UK it is called the Cold Cap, and is bright blue. In the chemo suite I attended in Windsor, Berkshire, most of the patients tried it. Many gave up because it was too uncomfortable, and some because their hair still fell out anyway. I shaved all mine off the day before my first chemo session and it really never bothered me being bald. I had a collection of wigs and scarves, hats and jaunty caps. Being glad to be alive was much more important to me than worrying about what anybody thought about my bald head. Angie Brooks