Health & Fitness

Cold cap helps preserve hair for breast-cancer patients

Mount Sinai Medical Center breast cancer patient Rachel Braga is undergoing chemo and sitting with a DigniCap, which has a temperature of around 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mount Sinai Medical Center breast cancer patient Rachel Braga is undergoing chemo and sitting with a DigniCap, which has a temperature of around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Mount Sinai Medical Center

Back in February, when an MRI revealed a cancerous tumor in Heather Chemtov’s left breast, the first thing the 37-year-old thought about was: “What will keep Mommy looking like Mommy?”

The Miami Beach resident worried if the chemotherapy caused her to shed the curly brown locks that hang down her back, she could frighten her two daughters, ages 3 and 5. Also, it has taken her a long time to grow 2 1/2 feet of hair, and she did not want to lose it.

On Monday, after months of working with her oncologist, Dr. Elisa Krill-Jackson, who was trying to bring the latest technology in scalp-cooling to Mount Sinai Medical Center, Chemtov watched as the hospital’s first breast-cancer patient received chemotherapy treatment while wearing a DigniCap. Oncology nurse manager Michael Mocoski placed the silicone cap with an outer layer of neoprene tightly over Rachel Braga’s head while the 48-year-old Aventura resident sipped hot tea. Inside the cap, which will stay on her head for the next eight to nine hours, it was about 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It’s weird, but I’m actually looking forward to this,” Chemtov said, qualifying her comment: For her last three rounds of chemotherapy at Mount Sinai, she has used the only cold-cap therapy that had been available. That cap, which she likened to “a block of ice,” plummeted to -32 degrees Fahrenheit. It was more cumbersome, painful and had to be changed every 30 minutes because it would warm up.

Mount Sinai is the only comprehensive cancer center in South Florida to currently offer the DigniCap, and one of only 10 in the United States. Krill-Jackson has long been an advocate for cold-cap therapy for the patients at lowest risk for cancer reoccurrence. But this new Swedish technology, cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December 2015, makes the process for patients to preserve their hair much easier.

According to information from Mount Sinai, seven out of 10 patients with early stage breast cancer kept at least 50 percent of their hair in clinical studies. In tests among early-stage breast-cancer patients, 70 percent kept more than half of their hair.

“When you feel good looking in the mirror every morning, and you recognize the person you see, I think it makes people feel better physically,” she said.

Braga, a hair stylist, agrees. As soon as Krill-Jackson told her about the new therapy, the 48-year-old Aventura resident knew she wanted to try it. She wondered whether clients would trust a bald stylist. Sitting in the oversized chair on Monday, Braga said the cap felt cold but comfortable.

Braga’s friend Laise Andrade, who has been cancer-free for two years after chemotherapy and a mastectomy, said she is thrilled there has been an advancement in cold-cap therapy. She, like Chemtov, underwent an older therapy that required the cap to be changed every 30 minutes because it would warm up, and needed at least two people to help change it.

The DigniCap is attached to a machine but can be unhooked for bathroom visits. The same cap stays on your head during the chemo treatment.

“When I first read about this machine, I was like, I need this!,” said Chemtov, whose mother is in remission from her breast-cancer diagnosis three years ago and whose grandmother once suffered from colon cancer. In fact, it was Chemtov’s family history that prompted the 37-year-old to start getting regular mammograms.

The MRI revealed Chemtov’s tumor on Feb. 15. Fourteen days later, she received her first chemotherapy treatment and donned the older cold cap.

While Krill-Jackson hopes the DigniCap therapy eventually will be covered by medical insurance, patients who use the device now must pay out-of-pocket, at a cost of $400 per treatment.

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