Sharon Arkin is among a handful of women in Arizona on a quest to save their hair.
Arkin was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in February and underwent a hysterectomy at Tucson Medical Center.
The 72-year-old psychologist and owner of Bed and Bagels, a bed and breakfast on Tucson's east side, was first in shock about the diagnosis. Then she faced the second whammy: hair loss from chemotherapy.
She picked out a wig and two scarves for the expected transformation.
Then she heard about Penguin Cold Caps - a treatment in which the scalp is chilled, causing blood vessels around hair roots to contract, reducing the amount of toxic drugs entering the follicles.
Arkin began her Internet research and learned that Penguin Cold Caps - invented by British scientist Frank Fronda - have successfully been used in Europe for about 15 years.
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The blue, helmet-shaped caps are filled with soft gel packs that are cooled to minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit. The exact temperature depends on a person's hair type.
The caps are worn before, during and after chemotherapy for a total of eight hours.
"I didn't want to walk around and look like a cancer patient if I didn't have to," Arkin said. "I didn't feel sick, and I didn't want to look sick."
It costs $500 a month to rent the caps, which are not covered by insurance.
On days of the chemo treatment, Arkin's friends obtain 80 pounds of dry ice, pack it into ice chests with the caps and haul the chests to Arizona Oncology, 2625 N. Craycroft Road, where she receives chemo. The caps need to be changed every 30 minutes.
"In the beginning, it feels like your putting your head in a freezing Lake Michigan," Arkin said. "My head gets numb after a few minutes and I can bear it."
The cooling treatment - which cannot be used by patients undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia or any blood cancers - must begin with the first session of chemotherapy, said Rebecca Eylers, Penguin's Arizona representative.
Eylers, 51, was sold on the caps when she was diagnosed with fallopian tube cancer in 2010. The Gilbert resident underwent a hysterectomy and chemo.
Her natural, curly, long brown hair remained intact, and she was able to attend the wedding of her son, Chris Mason, not looking sick or taking away from his day.
"That was very important to me. Chris was returning from Iraq after his second deployment, and I wanted everything to be perfect for him," she said.
In 2011, once Eylers got stronger, she reached out to Penguin to become its Arizona representative.
"During chemo, I still looked like me. It was very psychologically empowering," she said. "I had a sense of control when my whole body was out of control. I had my dignity."
Today, she spreads the word at oncology offices, hair salons, cancer support groups and at Susan G. Komen for the Cure events.
Arkin also is working on getting the word out to cancer patients before they start chemotherapy..
She completed her fifth round of chemotherapy June 21. Her hair is intact. The treatment is working, and it all is seen in her smile. Her final round of chemotherapy is next week, and then she starts radiation treatment in September.
The treatment is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which questions its safety and effectiveness.
U.S. doctors have concerns about cancer cells remaining in the scalp, Dr. Hope Rugo has said in news reports. Rugo is a medical oncologist and hematologist specializing in breast cancer research and treatment at University of California-San Francisco Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Studies show the risk of scalp metastases is very low, Rugo has said.
She has started a collaboration to study the use of the cold cap to try and get FDA approval. She started a registry to follow and track the progress of patients who were using cold caps.
The physician went to the FDA and proposed a trial, but the FDA wanted a feasibility study. Rugo just completed the pilot study with 20 patients and sent the results to the FDA.
"Hair loss, although not life-threatening, is one of the worst side effects of chemo. For patients, it is a huge issue," said Rugo.
Rugo said the clinic cannot participate in getting caps for patients but is supportive of patients and has two freezers to store the caps for those who decide to use them during chemo treatment.
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Find out more
• To find out about Penguin Cold Caps at www.msc-worldwide.com
• To contact Rebecca Eylers, the Penguin Arizona representative, call 1-480-442-9496.
Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at 573-4104 or firstname.lastname@example.org