Patients Freeze Scalps To Save Hair During Chemo
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's been about a year since Brandie Saint Claire was diagnosed with cancer.
BRANDIE SAINT CLAIRE: I was just going for my routine, six-month checkup and the dentist told me that he had seen something in my throat that was just a little bit odd and discolored. I wasn't having any symptoms. I mean, incredibly healthy running five miles a day, never a smoker. You know, I wasn't even worried. I never even thought about cancer.
MARTIN: But suddenly, there she was working with her doctors to come up with a plan. Seven weeks of chemotherapy and radiation every day. Major side effects included not being able to eat or swallow and of course, the most visible, losing her hair. Brandie Saint Claire didn't want to just accept the hair loss so she found a way to keep it by freezing her scalp during chemotherapy. She's part of a growing number of cancer patients who are doing this. And there's research to back it up. Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco tracked 100 women who used what are called Cold Caps. They were all able to keep most of their hair. The treatments are used widely in Europe, but they haven't been approved here by the FDA so most insurance plans don't cover them. When I spoke with Brandie Saint Claire recently, she took me back to one of the first conversations she had with her oncologist when she asked if there was any way she could keep her hair.
SAINT CLAIRE: And he was very callous, and he said that my hair didn't make me a woman and so I should just let it go. While I was driving myself back, I just broke down in tears 'cause it had nothing to do with the fact that I'm a woman. It had to do with the fact of my identity. And I don't mean in the sense that everything that I am is, you know, in each one of these individual hair follicles. I mean it in the sense of that, you know, I was told that I was going to be dramatically losing weight, that my skin color would change, that my teeth could possibly fall out from the radiation. I mean, it was horrific. And I thought, my God, can I not keep something of me?
MARTIN: What did your hair look like before the diagnosis?
SAINT CLAIRE: Oh, before the diagnosis, it was all the way down to the top of my jeans, blonde and thick and long and all of those beautiful - it kind of makes me think of like the old Pantene commercials.
MARTIN: Let me ask you this because for some people who are fighting cancer, the act of removing your hair is a powerful act. It's a way, people have described it, of taking control in some way, shaving your head before all the hair falls out. Is that anything that you thought about or considered?
SAINT CLAIRE: Well, I definitely think that the entire process of preparing yourself to go through cancer treatment is very ritualistic. You know, I can only speak for myself. And so I can only tell you, you know, what was powerful for me and what helped me through it. But I did read a lot. And I came across a couple of blogs having to do with losing your hair. And it seemed to be really divided. One camp was completely for losing the hair and said yes, I'm going to shaving off before. I'm going to reclaim myself. And then there was another camp, which I guess I would align myself with, which is absolutely not. I see cancer as being an intruder. I see it as attempting to defile me. I see it as a way to kill me. And I'm not going to allow it to dictate to me what I can or cannot do.
MARTIN: So you came across this treatment, cold cap treatment.
SAINT CLAIRE: Yes.
MARTIN: You came across it when you were on the Internet. Can you describe what the treatment entails?
SAINT CLAIRE: What it is is that you have this cold cap that honestly looks like a really big blue diaper that you put on your head. And you freeze it to temperatures of negative 20 to negative 45 degrees. And you wear that for a couple of hours prior to your chemo treatment, during your chemo treatment and for a couple of hours after.
MARTIN: Is it painful?
SAINT CLAIRE: Yes. It was painful, but I can tell you that some people say that for the first hour, it's painful kind of like a heavier headache leading into a migraine and then the scalp numbs. And then from there on in, it just feels consistently cold.
MARTIN: What did it feel like to you?
SAINT CLAIRE: It was painful pretty much through the entire process. But then I also have to point out that everything having to do with cancer is painful. There's not a single element of cancer in which you feel comfortable or that you don't hurt. And the whole process of fighting for your life is painful.
MARTIN: How much - may I ask, how much did it cost you? You paid out-of-pocket for it, right?
SAINT CLAIRE: Yeah, I did. And, you know, I kind of raised an eyebrow at the time. But I paid about $2,500, $2,800.
MARTIN: Did it work for you? Did you keep your hair?
SAINT CLAIRE: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: Is it still as long?
SAINT CLAIRE: I actually donated it.
MARTIN: To a charity?
SAINT CLAIRE: Yeah, to Locks of Love. And I told them that this was hair that was coming from a cancer survivor who fought to keep her hair. You know, if someone makes the choice or the decision or maybe they can't afford to rent Cold Caps. Or perhaps they have an oncologist, such as I had, which was very much against using Cold Caps therapy, then I wanted that strength that I had that fought and defeated such an evil, malignant disease to be imbued in that hair, to give them strength, to give them hope.
MARTIN: Brandie Saint Claire. She used cold cap treatments to keep her hair during chemotherapy. Thanks so much for talking with us Brandie.
SAINT CLAIRE: Thank you so much, Rachel. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.