By: DR. TIMOTHY KASUNIC
After decades of research and development, finally, many cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy will be able to avoid its most emotionally dreaded complication: complete hair loss.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the Dignicap System as the first scalp cooling system to prevent chemotherapy-related hair loss in breast cancer patients, in December, 2015. Toledo Clinic Cancer Centers (TCCC) began offering this service last March.
The FDA clearance was based on a study of the system conducted at five major cancer centers across the United States Treatment success was based on the patients’ own assessment of the degree of hair loss experienced. Success, signified by the patients not feeling the need for a wig, was seen in over 70 percent of patients. Although the approval was for breast cancer patients, Dignicap studies over the last 15 years have also shown consistent success rates in multiple different types of cancer and chemotherapy regimens.
What is scalp cooling? Chemotherapy works by attacking rapidly dividing cells. Unfortunately, although cancer cells are the most rapidly dividing, to a lesser extent so are blood cells, cells lining the mucous membranes and, importantly, hair cells. This then is how complete hair loss, known as alopecia, occurs.
The Dignicap consists of a tight-fitting silicone cap, placed on the head. An attached cooling system provides a liquid coolant that circulates throughout the cap, delivering consistent and controlled cooling to all areas of the scalp. It works by cooling the hair follicles, which slows metabolism and constricts the blood supply, minimizing chemotherapy to the scalp. The cap is placed on the patient’s head prior to, during, and for an average of 90 to 120 minutes following treatment. Minimal temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, which minimizes side effects of the cold cap, which are mild but include some cold discomfort, mild headaches, and occasional scalp itchiness.
TCCC was the first site nationwide to use the Dignicap System since the FDA clearance and remains the only site in the Midwest. We are currently getting calls from patients several hours away, requesting to receive care here in Toledo. Credit goes out to Toledo resident Bobbi Johnson-Filipiak for enabling Toledo to be one of the first cities in the nation to offer the Dignicap.
Mrs. Johnson-Filipiak is a lifelong non-smoker who was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2013. She has beautiful, long, strawberry blonde hair and dreaded the thought of losing it. She researched the systems available and, with the help of her husband Jim, used the Penguin Cold Cap system during her treatment. While this method proved extremely effective, it is a cumbersome process. It required obtaining dry ice prior to each treatment to keep the caps at an extremely low temperature and exchanging them every 20 to 30 minutes for four to six hours.
“I was on chemotherapy that should have caused complete hair loss. Instead, I looked the same during and after my treatments, which gave me incredible confidence to power through and focus on my healing and recovery,” Mrs. Johnson-Filipiak said. “Fighting cancer takes everything you’ve got. It was empowering to wake up every day and see the same me in the mirror. It was a small victory knowing that I could take control of something that cancer typically destroys.
“While bald certainly is beautiful, it’s refreshing that cancer patients now have a choice on losing or keeping their hair,” she added.
The couple continues to be the area’s biggest cheerleaders for this cause. They now coach other patients in pursuing and using the systems available. Mrs. Johnson-Filipiak is a board member of the Victory Center, a tremendous support organization based in Toledo for patients undergoing cancer treatment, and sees this as an extension of her goal to help others through this difficult process.
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.