Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 26, I've learnt that cancer can affect anyone, at any time, at any age. In February 2017, fourteen days after routine surgery to remove an ovarian cyst I heard the words ‘You have cancer’. I’d wandered into the appointment clutching a coffee thinking my consultant wanted to check my surgery scars, and instead I heard the words no one should ever have to hear. I had been going to my GP for three years with the symptoms and had been dismissed on each appointment, and now I was being told I needed additional surgery and chemotherapy.
I remember asking whether chemotherapy was the treatment where people lose their hair, and feeling totally mortified with the response. I was 26, about to start my career after nine years studying at University. How was I going to face the world? I could manage most things, but loosing something so visible would be showing the whole world that I was unwell was something I struggled to accept. Chemotherapy breaks down healthy fast-dividing cells, and with hair being the second fastest dividing cell in the body that is why we’re all told to start browsing wig and scarf styles.
I turned to the Internet and Social Media and spent a while searching for other options. This is when I first learnt about the Paxman Cold Cap. It works by reducing the temperature of the scalp by a few degrees immediately before, during and after chemotherapy. This then reduces the blood flow to the hair follicles with the ultimate aim of preventing or minimizing hair loss. Varying reviews and interesting stories kept me occupied on many sleepless nights. I remember going to a cancer charity, wanting to speak to someone about hair loss options and a retired nurse told me that she had heard about the cold cap and she didn’t think it would work and to prepare myself to lose it regardless. I came away with even more determination not to let her be right, thinking that she couldn’t be. They couldn’t be right.
Before the start date of my first chemotherapy treatment, I had a pre-assessment with one of the specialist nurses at Nottingham City Hospital. It was here that I was offered the choice to use the Paxman Scalp Cooling System. I was so pleased it was accessible at this hospital as I had read it isn’t always available across the UK. I had everything explained to me - that I would need to wear the cap for 30 minutes prior to the start of my treatment and 90 minutes following my infusion. I was having paclitaxel and carboplatin, which takes 5-6 hours infusion, so it would be 7-8 hours with the cap on.
I arrived at my first chemotherapy appointment on the 10th April 2017, and remember still questioning if this was really happening. The nurse sprayed my hair with cool water and put a thin layer of conditioner on. The cap came in two parts; an inner cap which contained the coolant liquid that would freeze and an outer cap to secure the inner cap on my head. The cap is plugged into the machine that chills the coolant to around -4 degrees. I had read so much online about the chin strap needing to be tight to ensure success, so I remember requesting for it to be tightened more than the nurse wanted too. I could barely talk, eat or drink. When the machine was ready and turned on, it was instant coldness and ‘brain-freeze’. I got under my blanket, and requested that my Dad talk at me to keep me occupied on that instead of thinking about what was happening. It was uncomfortable for the first 20-30 minutes, and then I think you slowly get used to having it on. When the cap is removed at the end of the treatment, you’d see little ice crystals and thankfully it was cold enough outside to hide under a bobble hat to the car.
I would wash my hair with sulphate free shampoo in cool water in the bath, every 3-4 days and would gently brush through it with a wide tooth comb. I used a crocodile clip to keep my hair up, and wouldn’t use any blow-dryer or straighteners.
Day 14 after my first treatment arrived, and I had read online to prepare for some hair to fall out. I don’t think you can prepare. I remember sitting in my car, speaking to my friend on the phone and gently itched the side of my head. Clumps fell onto my lap, and I remember thinking ‘come on, you can do this’. I heard some people had decided to shave their head after their first time with the cold cap and after some hair loss, but one woman I spoke to on Instagram told me not to give up at this stage and that the hair loss would slow down. I did keep thinking that if it continued at this rate, I’d have no hair and I cried every morning looking at my bedroom floor. But she was right. The hair loss slowed, and I continued to use the cold cap for all my six treatments. I lost my hair at the back of my ears and back of my neck where the cap hadn’t touched, and those areas were my reminder of how things could have been if I’d not used the cap. I realise how lucky I was. I kept a full covering of hair. It did thin, I did have to use crocodile clips to cover the thinning, but I never had a ‘bald day’.
I had succeeded in my aim to continue to look and feel like a 26 year old through an awful year of treatment. I was able to maintain a sense of normality by having some ‘normal’ days with friends and family when not attending hospital appointments. I couldn’t have any control of any other hair on my body. We can all wax and shave, but nothing is as eliminating of unwanted hair than chemotherapy!
I have definitely been very happy with my experience of using the Paxman cold cap. I have supported other women who have been interested in using the cold cap but were unsure about the success. I am so grateful to the Paxman family for pursuing the development and awareness of the cold cap to help cancer patients across the world. I know my experience of having cancer treatment would have been so different without the cold cap. People are amazed every day at how well I am looking and how much of a recovery I’ve made! I was devastated when I received my diagnosis, but I know this is just a stepping stone in my life and can feel like this has been easier to achieve thanks to this technology and the support of other people who have used the cap! We need more success stories so that people can have something to focus on.
If you’re about to start cold capping then good luck! Don’t be scared; it is bearable and it can work. I hope it works for you too!