Melanie Williams

Chemo Without Hairloss! Technology Enabled This Bluffton Teacher to Keep Her Hair During Cancer Treatment

January 2022 Issue
by Marie McAden
Photography (left) by Lindsay Gifford

For 49-year-old Bluffton High School teacher Melanie Williams, discovering she had breast cancer during a routine mammogram last July came as a life-changing blow.

Over the next several weeks, the mother of two would struggle to keep up with work, a busy home life and what seemed like a never-ending stream of doctor appointments and diagnostic tests. Her prognosis and how it would affect her two teenage children added to her anxiety.

The next phase of her cancer journey – enduring four rounds of chemotherapy – would create even more issues. While she was resigned to the trauma the powerful cancer drugs would cause her body, she dreaded one of its most conspicuous and devastating side effects—losing all of her shoulder-length hair.

“You can wear a scarf or wig but everyone knows what that means—
you have cancer,” Melanie said.
“I don’t want people looking at me with pity, especially as a teacher.”

Steeling herself for going bald, she bought a couple of scarves. But prior to the start of her chemo she learned about a treatment that could save her from what she assumed was an inevitable outcome of the drug therapy.

At one of her doctor appointments, Beaufort Memorial Hospital (BMH) breast care navigator Erin Bulatao-Hollifield told her about DigniCap, a scalp cooling treatment proven to reduce hair loss from chemotherapy.

BMH had just begun to offer the service after receiving numerous inquiries from cancer patients. Available at both the hospital’s New River Cancer Center in Okatie and Keyserling Cancer Center in Beaufort, the treatment takes place during chemotherapy sessions and can last from two-and-a-half to six hours, depending on the kinds of cancer drugs being administered.

“By cooling the scalp, you decrease the blood flow to the area so less of the chemicals reach the hair cells,” said Mark Hennigan, director of Beaufort Memorial’s oncology services.

The idea of cooling the scalp during chemo dates back to the 1970s when some cancer patients began using bags of frozen vegetables or ice packs to try to stop the cancer drugs from “burning” their hair.

“Leave it to women to find a way,” said Melissa Bourestom, Vice President of Communications for medical technology company Dignitana, which produces DigniCap. “Throwing a bag of peas on your head was the most primitive form of scalp cooling.”

Some 20 years later, a Swedish oncology nurse intent on sparing cancer patients the emotional pain of losing their hair, teamed up with an engineer to develop a system that would produce more consistent, controllable results than frozen produce.

The original DigniCap system they created in 2009 consisted of a form-fitting silicone cap that is attached to a computerized cooling unit. Inside the cap were specially designed channels which allowed coolant to be continuously circulated across all parts of the cap.

Results of a clinical trial showed DigniCap prevented hair loss in 66.3 percent of patients receiving chemotherapy. In 2015, the medical device received clearance from the FDA. Two years later, the next generation DigniCap system was introduced. It uses a flexible, form-fitting cap powered by precise, thermo-electric cooling.

“It’s cold, but you get used to it after the first half hour,” Melanie said. “I brought a jacket and my own blanket to stay warm.”

The treatment, available to cancer patients with solid tumors, is currently offered in more than 250 locations in the U.S. Beaufort Memorial’s Okatie and Beaufort cancer centers are the only medical facilities in Beaufort County currently providing the service.
To partake in the treatment, Melanie had to purchase a DigniCap kit, which includes an inner cooling wrap that tightens around your head like a blood pressure cuff, along with a neoprene cap that goes over the wrap to ensure constant contact to the scalp.

In addition to the $250 kit, DigniCap charges $300 per treatment. (Beaufort Memorial, which leases the cooling units, simply facilitates the service and does not receive any of the payment.) Total cost typically runs from $1,500 to $2,500 based on the number of cycles of chemotherapy a patient receives.

“Quite a few insurance companies cover the cost,” Bourestom said. “We offer an online hub to help patients file for reimbursements and can assist with the paperwork required for submission.”

After checking with her insurance company, Melanie expects to be reimbursed for part of the $1,450 she paid for the treatment. She has submitted the required paperwork and is waiting for a response. “Even if the insurance doesn’t cover it, I would have done it anyway,” she said. “It was worth it to have one less thing to deal with.”

Melanie had her final chemo treatment last October. In addition to chemo, she recently underwent a double mastectomy and will have reconstructive surgery early this year.
As for her experience with DigniCap, she couldn’t be happier with the results. While she can tell her hair is a little thinner, especially at the top of her head, she hasn’t had to wear the scarves she bought.

“I don’t look like I have cancer,” said Melanie. “It’s helped keep me more positive and my kids aren’t having to see me bald and think, ‘Oh my God, she has cancer.’”