Charity to keep hair loss at bay for cancer patients

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The Independent Online
A new charity, which aims to help cancer sufferers across the country avoid or limit one of the most distressing side-effects of their treatment, is to be launched on Wednesday.

Caroline Woolfson, a land and property negotiator in her early fifties, has, with two friends, created the charity Headlines to help patients deal with the hair loss brought about by chemotherapy.

Headlines will be raising funds for NHS hospitals to install a device known as Scalp Cooling System II (SCSII), which has been developed in Israel and which can dramatically reduce chemotherapy-related hair loss in some - though not all - patients. Each SCSII costs about pounds 20,000.

Mrs Woolfson's own hair has only recently started to grow back following intensive chem-otherapy for ovarian cancer.

Hair loss has been one of the hardest things to cope with, she said, as for three years she struggled to maintain a normal family and working life while fighting a potentially fatal disease. "It sounds strange but the cancer diagnosis did not touch me," she said. "When they told me I would lose all my hair, well, that really got me. I asked if there was anything they could do to stop it and they said no."

The powerful drugs used to treat cancer affect healthy cells as well as cancerous ones by interfering with cell division. Rapidly dividing cells, such as the hair follicles, are hardest hit.

Scientists have known for about 20 years that if they drastically cool the scalp during chemotherapy, damage to the hair follicle can be reduced - and hair loss limited or avoided. A lower temperature constricts blood vessels, reducing exposure of the hair root to the cancer drug. It also slows metabolic activity so the cells divide less rapidly and are less vulnerable.

The idea for Headlines developed after Mrs Woolfson read about the singer Olivia Newton-John, and how she managed to avoid alopecia, or hair loss, during her treatment for breast cancer. She wore what is known as a "cold cap" during her chemotherapy treatments, in which dry ice or crylon gel is placed in a cap and applied to the patient's head.

After making some inquiries, Mrs Woolfson discovered that the Christie Hospital in Manchester, where she was being treated, did have a cold cap, although it was rarely mentioned to patients. For her second block of chemotherapy, which began in January, she decided to try it and she found that her hair loss was reduced and she did not have to resort to a wig as she had after the first treatments. But the cap was uncomfortable, very heavy and tight-fitting, and the ice had to be replaced every 45 minutes as it melted.

Then Mrs Woolfson read about the Israeli invention which operates on the same principle as a scalp-cooling cap but which achieves thermostatically- controlled temperatures. The patient does not experience any cooling sensation.

"We made some inquiries and we hope to have the first machine delivered to the Christie very soon," Mrs Woolfson said yesterday. "But we won't stop there ... every cancer patient who needs or wants it should have access to one.

"In America they take this very seriously but it isn't British to worry about the cosmetic side of things and many oncologists are dismissive.

"Of course the life-saving drugs are more important for the health service to pay for, but Headlines is about promoting awareness of hair loss and what can be done about it. Patients who feel better about themselves will do better."

Barbara Kanas, a member of the charity's committee, said: "Our aim is to have at least one [SCSII] in every major city. There are many dreadful illnesses, but hair loss ... can have such an appalling psychological effect."

n The Caroline Woolfson Christie Appeal can be contacted on 0161 448 7228.