Nelson cancer patients trial treatment to help keep their hair during chemo
Chemo drugs can cause hair to fall out anywhere on your body.
But in a first for New Zealand, a technology Nelson Hospital is about to trial could spare patients that ordeal.
Breast cancer patients will be able to wear a scalp-cooling cap during chemotherapy, designed to help them keep their hair during treatment.
Nelson Marlborough Health consultant oncologist Dr Kate Gregory used similar technology in the UK and, after consulting patients, she applied to the Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand for funding to begin a trial.
"When I talk to patients in clinic about chemotherapy it is the one side effect that I can guarantee patients will tear up, or even burst into tears about, so it is a huge issue for people."
The pilot is expected to start by the end of this month and will run for six months at Nelson Hospital, where Gregory said breast cancer patients having chemotherapy would be offered the opportunity to participate.
The technology worked by cooling the scalp to constrict the blood vessels, limiting the amount of chemotherapy that reached the hair follicles.
Gregory estimated she would see four to five new patients each week from across the region who needed chemotherapy for breast cancer which was "quite significant".
While there's no guarantee it would work for everyone, Gregory said around 50 per cent of patients retained their hair, depending on the chemotherapy regimen used.
The Breast Cancer Foundation NZ paid $67,500 to purchase the scalp cooling machine and funded a specialist nurse to operate it for six months.
The results of the pilot would determine the number of women who kept more than half of their hair and didn't require a wig. It would also establish how much additional clinic time was needed for the process and how patients tolerated it.
"It is exciting to be able to offer this to patients in Nelson and I am hopeful it may make an impact for women all over New Zealand," Gregory said.
The pilot would begin when the new equipment arrived in the coming weeks.
Breast cancer survivor Christine Gabrielle said the technology would make a huge difference for those having chemotherapy.
For Gabrielle, losing her hair brought the reality of having cancer to light.
She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in her left breast in June 2014. She had mastectomy surgery in July then began chemotherapy in August.
Pre-empting her hair loss, Gabrielle decided to have her hair shaved off after her first chemotherapy treatment. Two days before the appointment it began to fall out in clumps.
She had always had a full head of curly hair that was a big part of her identity and losing it was the first "outward visible sign" of cancer.
She said there was no hiding from the visual impact, which she was confronted with when she looked in the mirror each day.
"Prior to the hair loss I knew I had cancer but it was a private issue, the hair loss makes it physical, makes it visible and it makes it very real, something that you can't fix quickly."
It was eight months before her hair grew back enough for her to stop wearing wigs.
Gabrielle said it would be wonderful if breast cancer patients didn't have to worry about losing their hair.
"If you can prevent that for someone, it makes the whole thing a little bit more palatable.
"It helps you to keep that positive attitude which is so important when you have something like cancer."
Breast Cancer Foundation NZ chief executive Evangelia Henderson said breast cancer was a "heartless disease" that affected thousands of people each year.
It was thanks to the generosity of donors that the pilot at Nelson Hospital was possible.
"If we can help minimise patients' hair loss by providing this machine, we'll have gone some way toward reducing their distress and improving their quality of life."