The cool cap device allowed me to maintain my self-image throughout my treatment and spared me the visual indignity of having a serious illness. I was able to keep my quality of life during a tumultuous and frightening time, and that is something that cannot be underestimated.— Deanna King
Getting a callback after a routine screening mammogram in 2013 did not set off any alarm bells. Having dense breasts has almost guaranteed receiving the dreaded callback ever since I started getting annual screenings. But when I got a second callback after additional images of a suspicious lesion in my left breast were taken, I knew the news was probably not good.
I really knew I was in trouble when, still in my paper gown, I was escorted to what I called the “sad room” to await the test results from a needle biopsy of the lesion. When I was summoned into the exam room to meet with the radiologist, I remember thinking how much easier it would be to face whatever news I was about to hear if only I could put my clothes back on and not feel so exposed and vulnerable.
However, clothes or no clothes, hearing the radiologist say she was “97% sure” I had cancer sent me reeling. Still, I clung to the 3% chance that I didn’t have the disease and decided to keep the news to myself until I got the final results from the biopsy.
My diagnosis was early-stage, HER2-positive invasive ductal carcinoma. My oncologist suggested that I have genetic testing for the BRCA gene mutation, and the result was positive. Now, I knew I was not only facing a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy, breast reconstruction surgery, and chemotherapy, but I would also have to steel myself for an oophorectomy in the future. But first things first.
Despite removal of both breasts, the surgeon failed to take enough tissue that was clear of cancer cells, and I had to have additional surgery, which resulted in an infection that lasted 6 months. Throughout this time, I decided to remain calm and use the delay of chemotherapy to my advantage. I knew I would need 12 cycles of paclitaxel and that the treatment would result in certain hair loss.
Having already lost my breasts to cancer—and soon, my ovaries—I wanted to do whatever I could to preserve my hair. My reasoning wasn’t just pure vanity. I was interviewing for a new job, and I didn’t want to have to explain that I was undergoing treatment for cancer.
Maintaining Quality of Life
I had read online about a clinical trial, underway at my cancer center, of the DigniCap scalp-cooling system for patients with breast cancer. I asked my oncologist if I was a candidate for the trial. To my great relief, I was.
During the course of the study, about an hour before the start of my chemotherapy, the scalp-cooling cap was placed on my head and remained there throughout the treatment cycle. All the while, I diligently followed the researcher’s instructions to treat my hair gently, refrain from coloring and brushing it, and wash it just twice a week.
Like other women in the study, I found the cool cap triggered a terrible headache similar to the kind you get after diving into icy water. But within a half-hour, my skull was so numb from the cold I didn’t feel anything, and I was able to complete each cycle of chemotherapy with little discomfort and no other side effects. Best of all, I never lost any hair. I was so lucky.
Being able to salvage my hair changed my perception of having cancer, because I never looked sick. The cool cap device allowed me to maintain my self-image throughout my treatment and spared me the visual indignity of having a serious illness. I was able to keep my quality of life during a tumultuous and frightening time, and that is something that cannot be underestimated.
Soon after treatment for my breast cancer ended, I had an oophorectomy. Although I had been told there was no need to rush into the surgery, the pathologic findings of my ovaries showed precancerous lesions. My gynecologist said I probably saved my life by acting so quickly. Again, I was lucky.
Having cancer was frightening, but the experience has made me fearless. I’m in a new romantic relationship, and I’m investigating starting my own business. This is my second act, and I’m enjoying every moment. ■
Editor’s note: The DigniCap Cooling System was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015 for the reduction of hair loss in female breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Ms. King lives in San Rafael, California.