I meet strangers in coffee shops, sometimes as often as three times a week. Starbucks is my favourite venue, I became addicted to their Spearmint Green tea whilst visiting the USA years ago (it’s called Zen tea in the US). When making arrangements to meet I rarely make a plan for recognition; I have faith that we will somehow ‘know’. If pressed, I describe myself thus ‘lots of hair’, if pressed for detail ‘dark red, messy…..’ I don’t think I am alone in using my hair as an initial descriptor – how do you describe yourself? Blonde, dark, long hair short hair, lots of hair – these words usually come before ‘tall, short, slim or wearing turquoise jeans’
Often the first question asked of oncologists upon diagnosis is ‘Will I lose my hair?’ Our lovely Fiona Macrae, diagnosed when her son was but a few months old, tells us that her first thought was “oh my God, I’m going to lose my hair’, concerns about her son came seconds later. Fiona is not alone. Fiona was able to use a cooling cap and kept most of her hair. Fiona describes the cooling cap as ‘not the most pleasant experience’ but she continued to endure it as she desperately wanted to keep her hair. Fiona did not want to be the ‘cancer patient pushing a pram’. ‘I didn’t want to face that sympathy from strangers and I didn’t want to have those conversations. I wanted to be able to take my baby for a walk and have baby centred chats like all other new mums’ Our great friend Ismena Clout pulls no punches when describing her experience of cooling caps. Ismena tried it only once and not for an entire session. Ismena, who faces her prolonged and repeated cancer treatments with bravery, determination and humour decided not to endure the ‘head freeze’ that accompanied the caps.
Beauty Despite Cancer writer Sam Reynolds describes experiencing one session with the cap in her fabulous post ‘Cold Caps and Clippers’ ‘Day one of chemo and trying the cold cap made for a welcome distraction from the endless forms required to apply for incapacity benefit so the nervous sighing turned to total hilarity. I looked like a jockey about to race in the Derby. I couldn't hear anything, which proved even more amusing since my mother (who seems to have been going deaf in old age for the last ten years) and I made a proper pair yelling at each other across a room the size of a postage stamp! It also had that familiar childhood sensation of slurping a McDonald’s milk shake too quickly (I bloomin wish!) and that crazy condition called Freeze Brain throbbed in my head, except it stuck around for a good few hours! Needless to say, it was the first and last time I bothered with that one.’ Cooling Caps are not always medically appropriate and should be discussed with your medical team. Not all women, for whom it is appropriate, are offered cooling caps, one of the fabulous hospitals that gives out Defiant Beauty Skin Care Advice Cards to all patients declined to offer our Chemo Girl cards as they mention ‘cooling caps’.
This hospital has cooling caps but, due to resource constraints, they offer them only to terminal patients and don’t mention them to others. To give out our cards could have resulted in distress and angst – that’s not what any of us want. It is always a medical decision as to whether or not cooling is appropriate. Imagine, when the caps are an option, being told of them and being given meds to help one deal with the pain and discomfort. This is the case at the fabulous Elstree Cancer Centre, a partnership between Spire Bushey Hospital and Cancer Partners UK.
The marvellous Alina, one of their Breast Care Nurses, showed me their chemo suite and explained that all patients, for whom it is medically appropriate, are offered a cooling cap. They are given meds before it is fitted to help them to sleep through chemo, their chair is reclined and they are tucked in with an ‘electric blanket for their shoulders’ (these are my words not Alina’s. I think I am putting into words the comfort I felt from Alina’s description). Given these circumstances, Alina tells me, all patients can tolerate the discomfort of the caps and most retain their hair. How do the patients at Elstree Cancer Centre describe themselves as they go through treatment? ‘Blonde’ ‘Dark’ ‘Red’ Never ‘Messy’
By Jennifer Young