For many cancer sufferers, the loss of their hair during chemotherapy is a significant challenge. It is an immediate physical sign, both to the patient and their friends and family, of the battle being fought and can heavily knock an already shaken confidence. Although not all forms of chemotherapy lead to hair loss, it is a common side effect and, in a small minority of cases, a permanent one.
In recent years, research has been undertaken into treatments which may help prevent hair loss in a significant number of chemotherapy patients. Of the treatments investigated, only two so far are showing any potential for preventing hair loss.
The least invasive of the two options is a dietary regime called the Plant Programme, named for its creator Professor Jane Plant, herself a cancer survivor. During her own experiences of chemotherapy, Professor Plant developed her own dietary programme, which was dairy free, processed food free and organic. Furthermore, she upped her intake of folic acid by drinking half a pint of bramley apple juice mixed with half a pint of fennel juice. She also imbibed half a pint of carrot juice and a lot of melon.
Professor Plant claims that she not only retained her hair, but also noticed it grow thicker and darker while she was on the diet. Her theory is that by enhancing the body’s natural defences, it will automatically provide its own protection, strengthening the weakened immune system and preventing hair loss. Many cancer patients who have followed the plan have reported greatly reduced hair loss.
The second method of preventing hair loss is known as the cold cap. This is not yet available universally in hospitals, but is an increasingly popular method of hair retention. The theory is that by keeping the scalp icy cold, blood flow is restricted, exposing the hair follicles to only the minimum levels of the chemotherapy drug.
However, unlike the Plant Programme, which can be adopted by anyone, the cold cap is not suitable for all cancer patients. Those receiving chemotherapy for blood-related cancers, such as leukaemia, are not able to benefit from the treatment as cancer cells may be lodged in the scalp.
It can also be a painful experience to undergo and has been compared to the sharp headache one gets when biting into cold ice-cream – only sustained over several hours. For the cold cap to be effective, it needs to be in place for 15 minutes before treatment begins and up to two hours afterwards, so a high pain threshold is necessary for the process. However, although there is no guarantee of hair loss prevention, the treatment does appear to have a positive effect in an impressive number of cases.
The cold cap can be administered as either a hat/turban which sits snugly on the scalp and is filled with cooling gel, or via a set-up akin to a salon hair dryer. It’s not yet known if one method is more effective than the other.
The Belgravia Centre supports the Little Princess Trust, which is a charity dedicated to supplying children with cancer or other forms of severe hair loss with wigs to help them through their difficult time. If you would like more information, or to make a donation please visit their website.
Clearly there is a long way to go before there is a satisfactory solution to hair loss during chemotherapy, but we at the Belgravia Centre are pleased that research is progressing.