Cancer patients could keep hair with new treatment

For people undergoing chemotherapy, hair loss can be a distressing side effect.

But a pilot study in Nelson is helping breast cancer patients keep their hair, by cooling their scalps during treatment.

"The difference with being bald is that it's evidence every time you look in the mirror that you have cancer, that you're going through chemo," cancer survivor Christine Gabrielle told Newshub.

She wishes this technology was available to her when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer three years ago. It could have saved her from losing her hair.

"I think keeping your hair would allow you to remain who you are."

It's hoped a scalp cooling machine, funded by the Breast Cancer Foundation, will help future patients.

It works by cooling liquid that flows through a cap. That reduces blood supply and the amount of chemotherapy reaching the scalp. 

"It basically means that the hair follicles have a lesser dose of chemotherapy and that's how it can work to prevent hair loss," Nelson Hospital oncologist Kate Gregory told Newshub.

"It's not guaranteed for people but that's how it works."

Most breast cancer patients lose their hair through chemo, but with recent studies have shown that with scalp cooling, at least 50 percent retain their hair.

It's already available overseas, but this is the first time it's been made available in the public health system in New Zealand.

The Breast Cancer Foundation has paid $67,500 to purchase the scalp cooling machine, and fund a specialist nurse to operate it for six months.

Nurse Shelley Shea says it would be one less thing to contend with.

"Having to lose your hair on top of everything else, feeling sick and nauseated, really fatigued.  If you're looking and feeling good on the outside it actually helps you feel good on the inside."

The trial gets underway for Nelson patients at the end of the month, and if it goes well, could be introduced to other DHBs.