‘It’ll never ever be the same’: New technology at UPMC Magee may help cancer patients keep hair

PITTSBURGH — Channel 11′s Alyssa Raymond takes us inside Magee Women’s Hospital introduce us to a woman battling breast cancer and hair loss with a new technology that may look strange, but it’s working.

“Trust me,” said Mylene Zupan. “It gets cold.”

Mylene Zupan is 61 years old. Every Friday, her husband of 25 years helps her put on her cooling cap.

“It’s a process where they freeze your scalp,” said Zupan.

“The idea of scalp cooling has been around for 30 years,” said UPMC Breast Oncologist Specialist Dr. Shannon Puhalla. “What’s changed is perfecting the technology.”

The portable machine cools the water down to just above freezing.

“First half an hour is pretty brutal,” said Zupan. “And you think to yourself, ‘why am I doing this again?’”

The cold water circulates through the cap and freezes hair follicles, which then minimizes hair loss from chemotherapy. Zupan says she wears the cap for about five hours. 30 minutes before starting chemotherapy and two hours after the treatment ends.

“To some people, keeping their hair is not important because to them I have cancer that’s what I need to focus on,” said Zupan. “For me, losing my hair was going to be very traumatic, especially because I still work.  I work full-time.”

Back in May, Zupan was at work when she found out she had triple-negative breast cancer.

“Once you get a cancer diagnosis, life as you know it changes,” said Zupan. “It’ll never ever be the same, ever.”

She started chemotherapy and just finished her 10th treatment. Her doctor, Shannon Puhalla, says if she wasn’t using the cooling cap, she wouldn’t have any hair at this point.

“I think part of it is trying to keep a sense of normalcy,” said Puhalla. “Not having to wear a wig. Not having to wear a hat. Just really doing their normal day, and one less thing they need to think about and one less reminder that they’re going through cancer.”

The company says chemo patients who use it typically keep at least half of their hair and it grows back quicker. Zupan says she thinks she’s only lost about 5-10 percent of her hair.

“You’re going to hear people say it’s not worth it, but if your hair is an important part of you and your persona, then I would say definitely try it,” said Zupan. “I did not want one more thing on top of everything else to change in my life, and my life has changed forever now. I just wanted one thing that I had control over because everything else I now have no control.”

Right now, this is not covered by most insurances, but there’s a push to change that. For Zupan, the $1,500 cost is absolutely worth it. Zupan also says her tumor is shrinking.

“Cancer is not curable,” said Zupan.  “It can go into remission, but it’s not curable even if you catch it at an early stage. There’s always a chance of recurrence that looms over your head. Even when this process is over, and you’ve had surgery and radiation and chemo and they say we got clean margins when we did surgery there’s still that chance looming that it’s going to come back.”

She wanted to also stress the importance of self-breast exams.

“Do your breast exams,” said Zupan. “I cannot stress that enough especially if you are not getting mammograms because they tell you you’re too young. Do your breast exams.”

“We have so many advances for cancer,” said Puhalla. “It’s definitely not the cancer that we were treating even when I started practicing over 15 years ago. Every year there’s something new. Every year there’s advances. People are doing better and better. While it’s a very significant diagnosis, and it’s something that affects someone and their entire family, we’re in a position right now where we have so many options available, and it’s really not the death sentence that it was associated with. Not only do we have better treatments, we have better symptom management so I think it’s a very hopeful time when you’re facing a cancer diagnosis.”

UPMC now has 15 of these “Cooler Heads” machines throughout its hospitals in our region. The woman who created this technology was also diagnosed with breast cancer and spent thousands of dollars trying to save her hair.

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