"I felt empowered." Scalp cooling helps cancer patients avoid hair loss

Brynn Kemper underwent chemo at only 29. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE--It's one of the first questions many cancer patients ask when starting treatment. Am I going to lose my hair? The answer is often yes.

But scalp cooling therapy is changing that for some patients. The technology has been around for several years, first approved by the FDA in 2015. But it's just now becoming more widely available in the Seattle area.

"I was terrified going into chemo," said Brynn Kemper. She was just 29 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "It was definitely a shock. I don't have any family history of the disease."

Her doctors laid out an aggressive treatment plan that included four months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and six weeks of radiation. She had a good prognosis but dreaded a common side effect.

"My particular course of chemo, there's 100 percent hair loss," Brynn said. "There's no chance I would have kept any of my hair."

Brynn's doctor told her about a scalp cooling system that could help save her hair. Cooling the scalp slows down the flow of blood.

"So essentially what we're doing is minimizing the amount of drug that gets to the follicle, so it decreases the hair loss," explained Terry McDonnell, chief nurse executive of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

In clinical trials, it cut hair loss in half. During chemotherapy, Brynn's hair thinned out. But looking at photos, it's hard to tell. She doesn't look like a cancer patient.

"Being able to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and recognize the person I saw looking back at me, helped me power through the treatment," she said. "I felt strong. I felt healthy."

"Some women don't have the ability to conceal the fact that they're undergoing cancer treatment," Terry McDonnell said. "And maybe they don't want to share that with everyone. This is a way of helping patients maintain that dignity and control that they were otherwise losing."

When Brynn went through treatment last year, she had to rent the system and bring her own caps, packed in dry ice to the hospital. "The night prior to my infusion, we would buy 80 pounds of dry ice to stock the cooler to ensure that the caps would get down to the negative 35 degrees they needed to be," she explained. "It's cold!"

The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance now has machines in house, run by a nurse. SCCA is using the Paxman system, which caps a patient's out of pocket cost at $2,200. It is an advancement Brynn hopes more women will use, so they can feel stronger while in the fight for life.

"First and foremost, I'm cancer free. So that's all that really matters. But beyond that, I have my health back. I feel completely back to normal. I feel like myself," Brynn said. "It helped me feel empowered."

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