Leading Australian cancer experts are urgently calling for greater access to advanced scalp cooling technology for Australian women undergoing chemotherapy in a bid to reduce the substantial psychological impact of treatment-related hair loss and improve patient quality of life.
Scalp cooling technology works by lowering scalp temperature before, during and after the administration of chemotherapy. The cooling tightens up or constricts blood vessels in the scalp, reducing the amount of chemotherapy reaching the cells of the hair follicles.
Up to 65 percent of chemotherapy patients will experience hair loss, which can cause such significant psychological distress that some women are forgoing chemotherapy for fear of losing their hair. This has promoted an urgent plea from leading oncology experts to improve access to scalp cooling technology for Australians undergoing chemotherapy.
The most recent figures suggest there are more than 680,000 chemotherapy sessions performed in Australia each year, with breast cancer one of the most common women’s cancers requiring this treatment.
Sydney-based mum-to-two and university tutor Annabel, 50, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, and the stigma associated with chemotherapy-related hair loss was a significant concern.
“My breast cancer diagnosis came as a complete shock. However, it didn’t take me long to shift into solutions mode, and I was determined that cancer would just be a small bump in the road, and I would just get on with my life,” said Annabel.
Annabel was referred to a breast surgeon and was relieved to hear the team were still performing surgeries despite COVID-19. After undergoing a double lumpectomy, she was informed she would also need treatment with chemotherapy.
“On one hand, I was very lucky. I had an amazing surgeon who did a double lumpectomy, and my scar has completely healed, but on the other hand, the physical and psychological effects of going through chemotherapy were significant. At one stage, I had no energy and was relying on friends for food and dinner. I couldn’t concentrate anymore and felt extremely lethargic.”
While she was determined not to let her diagnosis dominate her life, the prospect of losing her hair through treatment and the stigma associated with this proved psychologically and emotionally challenging.
Preparing to lose all her hair, she began exploring different wig options and made an appointment at the wig library. She worried that losing her hair would take away her choice in telling people about her diagnosis.
However, after hearing about scalp cooling from her team at GenesisCare and a friend who had used the technology, she opted for give it a try, hoping it may give her a chance to keep her natural hair.
“One of my biggest concerns about chemotherapy was losing my hair through treatment. Your hair and your breasts are a quintessential part of being a woman. I had to leave it to my breast surgeon to decide whether or not I’d keep my left breast but having access to scalp cooling therapy gave me the choice to try and keep my hair,” said Annabel.
Annabel commenced her chemotherapy alongside scalp cooling technology at GenesisCare. Although she lost the hair on her body, including her eyebrows and eyelashes, thankfully, she retained the hair on her head.
“My advice to Australian women living with breast cancer, and worried about treatment-related hair loss is to look into scalp cooling. While scalp cooling doesn’t work the same for everyone, for me, it was fabulous. In keeping my hair, I maintained a sense of control over who I shared my diagnosis with. It also had a huge psychological benefit in how I saw myself every morning when I looked in the mirror,” Annabel said.
According to McGrath Breast Nurse Elaine Arnold, who has over 12 years’ experience in the oncology care: “A breast cancer diagnosis can affect multiple aspects of a patient’s life and femininity, including their fertility, body, sexual health and their appearance. Being empowered to take back some control and maintain the very visual feature of hair can be critical to maintaining their identity.”
Aurora BioScience and GenesisCare have recently announced a partnership to offer the next generation DigniCap Delta® to all suitable patients undergoing chemotherapy, which will help to improve access to these technologies for Australians living with cancer.