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Cooler heads prevail: how unique technology helped Wanda McKenna during her cancer treatment

Wanda McKenna of New Glasgow had shoulder length hair when she began chemotherapy at Aberdeen Hospital and she managed to keep it, thanks to a British scalp cooling system.
Wanda McKenna of New Glasgow had shoulder length hair when she began chemotherapy at Aberdeen Hospital and she managed to keep it, thanks to a British scalp cooling system. - Rosalie MacEachern

Cancer + Chemotherapy = Losing Your Hair. It is an ugly equation that particularly grieves women but Wanda McKenna is proof it does not have to be that way.

She emerged from four chemotherapy treatments at Aberdeen Hospital with what she and her hairdresser Brenda Dicks estimate is 80 per cent of her hair still intact, thanks to a scalp cooling system pioneered in the United Kingdom almost a quarter century ago. The first person in Atlantic Canada to use the treatment, Wanda believes it allowed her to hold onto her identity, her dignity and a greater degree of privacy during treatment and recovery.

“Having cancer and treatment can mean enduring so many losses for the sake of getting better. For me, keeping my hair was a huge psychological boost to my well-being and it gave me a much needed feeling of winning for a change.”

  1. science teacher at North Nova Education Centre, Wanda was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago. She was told her prognosis was good but she would need a lumpectomy and radiation.

“As I struggled to come to terms with everything that was happening and my lack of control I remember thinking that at least I don’t need chemo. At least, I won’t lose my hair. I hung onto that thought.”

Her immediate concern was for her children, both grown and living in Montreal and Toronto, because she knew the news would leave them helpless and fearful. For a while it seemed all the dreams of an empty nest couple approaching retirement had screeched to a halt but three months and two surgeries later she was ready to begin radiation, confident that if all went well she would be back in her classroom for the start of second term.

She and husband Jim McKenna went to Halifax to meet her oncologist and radiologist with no idea that a final test showed Wanda had HER2+ receptors for estrogen and would now require chemotherapy.

“The oncologist assumed we knew and began talking about chemotherapy next week. He advised me to cut my hair short and have a wig on standby. I was so blind-sided I barely heard what he was saying. I insisted he must have the wrong chart because I had been told I did not need chemo.”

The McKennas returned to New Glasgow, shaken, discouraged and uncertain about their next move. Wanda felt the one positive she’d been able to hold onto had been pulled out from under her. Sometime during the long evening that followed Jim remembered seeing a television news clip about a process that prevented hair loss. After some searching, they found a description of the Paxman Cooler and contact information for a Canadian distributor.

In talking to Cold Comfort Canada, they learned the owner was willing to fly to Nova Scotia and visit the hospital where Wanda would receive her treatment.

“It is a small company, she is a cancer survivor and she is passionate about what she can offer. After talking to her I felt reassured.”

McKenna learned she could rent the equipment and the entire process would cost her just over $2,000, none of which would be covered by private insurance.

“There was a point where I wondered if this was a selfish expense but Jim was totally supportive of me trying it. Jut the idea made me feel better.”

If a Paxman Cooler sounds like a drink for a hot summer’s day, it isn’t – but it was developed by a family of refrigeration specialists who previously concentrated on systems for keeping beer chilled. Only when a family member required chemotherapy did they begin experimenting with a medical application. By 1997 Huddersfield Royal Infirmary in West Yorkshire installed the prototype system and the technology is now in use in 25 countries world-wide.

According to Cold Comfort Canada’s website, chemotherapy drugs target rapidly dividing cells and 90 per cent of hair follicles are in the process of actively dividing. Lowering the temperature of the head and scalp before, during and after the administration of chemotherapy reduces the flow of blood to the hair follicles, preventing or minimizing damage.

Armed with her information, Wanda presented it to her cancer care team, explaining that Cold Care Canada would supply the equipment and provide the small amount of training necessary.

“I definitely sensed skepticism. I know some kindly people just felt sorry for me. There were also some rised eyebrows, clearly suggesting I was being sold snake oil but the hospital gave me a chance and the nurses were wonderful about going along with it. When I turned up in the chemo room with my hair intact for my second treatment people began to be impressed.”

At each treatment nurses helped Wanda spray her hair until it was damp and then pull on a tight fitting cooling cap attached to the cooling unit.

“Over that I put on what looked like a soldier’s helmet with a chin strap. It was cold for the first 10-15 minutes but not unbearably so and I got used to it. I found it a distraction from the infusion of drugs. I was offered warm blankets and able to read, listen to music or chat with people who came by.” The scalp cooling, which created a thin layer of ice crystals around her head but posed no danger of frostbite, made for a longer day than most chemo patients as it had to be worn for a half hour before drugs were infused and two and a half hours afterwards.

“The chemo room is such a busy place I felt a bit guilty about my machine taking up extra space and creating a bit more work for the nurses but they were amazingly caring and capable.”

Wanda recently shared her experience with scalp cooling at a Women Alike breast cancer support meeting because she wants to improve awareness of the system.

“It doesn’t work for everyone. There are variables, including the particular drugs you’re receiving but I was able to discuss those details with the distributor in advance.”

She is also well aware the cost would be prohibitive for many.

“I’d like to think there will be a day when we’ll have a scalp cooling machine at the Aberdeen and other hospitals in Atlantic Canada. I’m also hopeful we can find ways to pay for treatment so any woman who is interested has this option to consider.”

McKenna is grateful for the health care she received throughout her treatment and thankful for her husband.

“I’ve met so many people through this diagnosis but he’s the only one who’d heard of a hair loss prevention treatment.”

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