My name is Helen and I’ve just turned 55. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the beginning of September 2015 and started chemotherapy a month after my surgery in October. Everything moved so fast, I could hardly take it in.
The diagnosis was a complete ‘bolt from the blue'. I had been working hard in a stressful management job and trying to balance that out by walking a lot. I was feeling fine until the middle of July when I suffered what I thought was a case of mild food poisoning. Having been to a Japanese restaurant to celebrate a friend’s book publication, I assumed the griping pains and faint nausea were a result of the sushi I’d eaten. I ignored it for a couple of days and at the weekend set out on my usual 6-mile walk. After about a mile I was overcome by the most extraordinary fatigue. I thought, “I must be overdoing it”, and struggled home to rest. My symptoms were still vague and intermittent.
Two weeks later, I was bloated and feeling real discomfort. My GP thought it was probably IBS and that I was stressed at work. To be sure, she sent me for blood tests and I asked for a CA125 test to be added to the bloods panel, since I was going through the menopause and no one had ever tested me for ovarian cancer (of course you always jump to the most catastrophic conclusion).
The results came back sky-high: my worst fears realised, I burst into tears and so did my GP. She was amazing; she managed to get me an ultrasound scan first thing the following morning, which confirmed the diagnosis; and off I went to London for treatment.
On October 9, after a radical hysterectomy and omentectomy, I started my 18-week course of chemotherapy (6 treatments, one every 3 weeks). It was a combination of paclitaxel and carboplatin and, having done a bit of research online, I had arranged to use a cold cap whenever I had one of my 6 cycles of treatment. It seemed such a minor, shallow consideration when my life hung in the balance, but I'm so, so glad I did it. I had heard tales of it being terribly uncomfortable and that some women had given up on it. Even the nurses at the chemo centre were doubtful that a) I could stick it or b) it would save my hair.
The first time I took a paracetamol half an hour before they put the cold cap on me, but I never even needed that for the subsequent treatments. Yes, the cap was cold, but the clue was in the name! My head felt rather frozen for the first 10 minutes; the cap was tight but not horribly so (in fact, having read about the importance of good contact with the scalp, I even tightened the straps a bit more and from time to time pressed down on the crown of the cap to hear the reassuring crunch of the little ice crystals formed beneath it).
I wore it each time I had chemotherapy for a minimum of 5 hours and I can honestly say it wasn't an ordeal. In fact, when my hair didn't fall out 2 weeks after my first chemo session – as I'd read had happened to so many women not using the scalp cooling system – and it was still firmly in place when I got to my next session, I was elated. The nurses were surprised. "It may not last," they warned me.
But it did. Here I am 5 weeks after my last chemo treatment, still with a full head of hair. I can't tell you how grateful I am for that, to the Paxman system and to that slightly shallow, vain side of myself that decided to give it a go. Chemo is no fun and I had some real lows during my treatment (including 10 days in hospital from the side effects), but looking in a mirror and seeing someone I recognised, being able to go out shopping and visit friends without being immediately identifiable as a cancer patient, was an absolute blessing.
I lost all my eyelashes and eyebrows by the end, but my hair just hung on in there, despite me having bought a wig, innumerable scarves and even a Spirit Hood to disguise my expected baldness. In fact, wherever I went people congratulated me on how well I looked – many of them didn't even know I was being treated for cancer, since I only told close friends and family, not wanting to be defined by my disease.
I can't recommend the Paxman Scalp Cooling System highly enough. Everyone is different, as my oncologist told me after I suffered a chemo side effect he'd never come across before, "You are wired completely differently to everyone else". I'd say it's definitely worth a go. It's not as uncomfortable as you expect, especially if you give yourself the 'walk like an Indian' talk - that is, tell yourself it's really not that cold and within 5 minutes or so all you'll feel is the physical tightness of the cap, rather than the coldness. It's like swimming in the sea: you jump in and think your heart's going to stop from the cold and after 5 minutes you're warm.
My extra tips are:
1. During treatments I used a gentle conditioner with no sulphates and neutral pH value.
2. I hardly washed my hair between treatments, and when I did I used lukewarm water with neutral pH value shampoo and conditioner (a friend of mine is a hairdresser and recommended Redken products). Obviously I didn't dye or highlight my hair during this time.
3. When drying my hair I either let it dry naturally or used a hair dryer on a low heat setting. I never blow dried it or used any force when combing and brushing it.
4. The day after each chemo session I boiled a chicken with herbs, carrots, celery and seasoning and drank the broth for 2 or 3 days and ate all the meat: it’s full of collagen and very nourishing for skin and hair.
5. I bought a silk pillowcase, which was cool and smooth against my skin, and is said to lead to less breakage.
I don't know if any of these tips had an effect, but I do know that scalp cooling worked, seeing as I lost all my hair everywhere else on my face and body!