Cheryl Cuprys prides herself on keeping a cool head in the face of adversity and challenges.
When the Oregon woman received the diagnosis that her breast cancer – which she had battled successfully some 23 years ago – had returned, she steeled her resolve to weather the surgeries and treatment she would need to survive. She was also determined to lead as normal a life as possible throughout it all – and that included keeping her full head of hair.
She knew it could be done. She had done it herself before.
“When I was diagnosed the first time, I felt personally, that if I had to go through all these treatments, keeping my hair would be one less thing I’d have to be concerned with,” she said. “I didn’t have a computer then, so I went to the library and did some research.”
What she discovered was cold-cap therapy, a little-known approach that involves keeping the scalp very cold during chemotherapy treatments. The theory is that the caps may work by decreasing blood flow to the scalp, causing the blood vessels in the scalp to shrink. This, in turn, blocks the harsh chemotherapy chemicals from reaching the hair follicles.
When she went to see her oncologist, he was surprised that she had learned about the therapy. “He asked how I found out…I told him I did the research.”
Cuprys was pleased to learn that at the time, St. Charles Hospital offered the therapy, which involved cooled water circulating around the scalp. Even better, her insurance paid the $800 fee.
“It worked for me,” she said. “And not losing my hair made the treatments and the battle a little easier.
“People would ask me how it was that I didn’t lose my hair,” Cuprys said. “And yet, I didn’t know anyone else who ever used it.”
When she was re-diagnosed this past June, she was again determined to protect her tresses with the cold therapy, but was surprised and disappointed to learn that the Cancer Center at St. Charles no longer offered the cold cap treatments.
She subsequently aked her oncologist, who didn’t know of anyone offering the service. “When I went for a second opinion, the doctor knew about the treatment, but also didn’t know anyone offering it locally,” Cuprys said.
An online search revealed a couple of companies offering cold-cap service, and Cuprys subsequently contacted Sandy Molenhouse with Michigan-based Advance Cold Cap Services.
The company, which serves the U.S. and North America, was founded last year by Molenhouse and her partner, Mike Sweeney.
Sweeny, also a partner in the Marietta Dry Ice company in Georgia, first learned about the therapy after receiving an inquiry from a cancer patient interested in procuring dry ice to chill cold caps during chemotherapy treatments.
“It was right after a story on the cold caps aired on ‘Good Morning America’ in October 2010,” Molenhouse said. “The patient, who had seen the story, had rented a cap from an overseas company and was looking for dry ice for cooling.
“The process she faced was cumbersome and expensive…buying and transporting the ice, cooling the caps to the proper temperature, etc.” Molenhouse said. “We began to research ways to make the therapy more user-friendly and affordable.”
Molenhouse discovered that gelcaps were being made for cold-cap therapy by Kansas-based Southwest Technologies, Inc. “The company was supplying the caps internationally, but not so much in the U.S.,” she said. “Our first shipments came with foreign languages on them.”
Sweeney then designed a modification for a 64-quart cooler that would allow it to safely house dry ice in quantities enough to keep the caps at the proper temperature. The partners worked to assure the system would be clinic- and user-friendly.
Advance Cold Cap kits are delivered to patients in the special cooler packed with dry ice in compartments that allow effective cooling below -50 degrees Fahrenheit for up to five days. The six cryogel caps, which arrive frozen, are changed and refrozen throughout a chemotherapy session.
The cost is $249 per treatment, which includes pickup and delivery. The cost is not covered by insurance plans. “The caps are FDA-approved, but the process itself is considered hair care, so it’s not covered,” Molenhouse said.
Disappointed to learn she’d have to pay to use the cold caps during this round of chemotherapy, Cuprys was heartened when a friend, Bill Hetrick, offered to pay for the four cold cap sessions she’ll need.
Not so bad at all
On the day of her first treatment in late December, Cuprys settled in at the Cancer Center at St. Charles while Molenhouse, who made the trip from Holland, Mich., helped Cuprys’ friend Laura Blackwell get familiar with the process.
“If I’m close enough in proximity, like I am to Cheryl, I like to come the first time,” Molenhouse said.
“I was a little uncomfortable for the first five minutes, but after that’s it’s not so bad at all,” Cuprys said. As staff buzzed around, checking on the progress of Cuprys’ chemotherapy, Molenhouse and Blackwell discussed the schedule for checking, changing and refreezing the six caps included in the kit.
Future cap treatments will be delivered to and picked up from Cuprys’ home. “We see the best results with clients who wear the caps for several hours after their chemotherapy treatments and we didn’t want them to have to stay at the clinic,” Molenhouse said.
Since last February, Advance Cold Cap Services has provided about 100 treatments, with good results. “I would say we’ve had about 80 percent success,” Molenhouse said. “People have been very happy.
“Our business is 100 percent client-driven – we’re sought out by patients who are doing the research and looking to be proactive about their treatment and care – like Cheryl.” Molenhouse added that the company requires permission from the clinic and oncologist before arranging delivery.”
“When I tell other women about it, they think it’s just great,” Cuprys said. “When I tell men, they say, ‘what’s the big deal…it’s just hair. It will grow back.’
“They don’t get it,” she said. “For me, it’s worth it – but it’s totally a personal decision.”
Sandy Molenhouse, of Advance Cold Cap Services, helps Cheryl Cuprys put on a chilled cryogel cap during a recent chemotherapy session at Mercy St. Charles Cancer Center. (Press photo by Tammy Walro)