One of the many unpleasant side effects of being treated for cancer is hair loss. The strength of radiation or chemotherapy attacks not only the disease, but also the healthy parts of the body, such as the follicles. Recently, though, a Walters resident decided not to accept that depletion as a matter of course. Instead, she found a treatment little known in the area that’s helped keep up her dignity and spirits.
Barbara Herrala was at the Virginia Oncology Associates wing in Sentara Obici Hospital on Thursday morning. She and her husband, Ted, were waiting to be called to a room where she would get her last dosage of chemotherapy. That day would also be the last for her to use the series of Arctic Cold Caps, which were stored in a large cooler chilled by dry ice.
Looking straight on, Herrala appears to have a full head of hair. Bending down to show the top of her head, she reveals some thinning. But she’s still quite pleased.
“I’ve kept my own hair after five treatments,” the petite-sized patient said with a broad smile. “I’m thrilled!”
She has been shedding some hair, but this is far preferable to losing it in clumps, patches or all together.
The need for all this dates back to as early as June 2015 when she had a mammogram, something Herrala’s done regularly for years. Right after Thanksgiving, she performed a self-exam. Doing these cannot be stressed enough in her opinion. Herrala found something to catch her attention, and made a note to pay attention.
A history of benign cysts was another factor in her life, and so she thought that’s what was the questionable area.
Then in mid-February of this year, she went to the doctor’s office for a test.
She mentioned and thanked Dr. Brian King at Sentara Obici, who did the biopsy. That test revealed a diagnosis positive for cancer. A lumpectomy, the surgery to remove a lump from her left breast, became necessary in late April. Four lymph nodes were also removed.
Genetic testing also became necessary, and it discovered there’s a lot of cancer on her father’s side.
A second type of cancer developed, Paget’s disease of the breast; this time six more lymph nodes were affected. Twelve days later doctors performed a mastectomy, the removal of all breast tissue as a way to prevent the cancer, became necessary. One of the lymph nodes was also positive; those six were taken out.
“Terrified” was Herrala’s initial reaction at the thought of dealing with chemotherapy.
But in her online research about chemo and its affects on the body, such as hair, “I simply googled ‘Cold caps,’” she said.
That led her to The Rapunzel Project (www.rapunzelproject.org), named after the young woman in the fairy tale whose hair grew and grew and grew … and grew.
The non-profit organization is “dedicated to helping chemotherapy patients keep their hair during treatment,” as stated on the website.”
From there, the 68-year-old learned of four or five other companies that offer a treatment to minimize or prevent major hair loss.
Extensive research helped Herrala and her husband to decided on Arctic Cold Caps (www.articcoldcaps.com) as the preferred source.
“The Arctic Cold Cap System uses super-cooled caps to constrict the blood vessels in your scalp, thereby protecting your hair follicles from damage,” as noted on that company’s website.
The chilling is accomplished using dry ice. In her case, Roberts Oxygen in Portsmouth has been her source. Fifty to 60 pounds are needed each treatment, done every three weeks; ACC arranged for a discount.
Doing this was not simply a matter of vanity about the hair falling out.
Instead, “It gave me a little bit of power,” she said.
Through her ordeal, Herrala has gotten support not only from her husband and family, but also friends and church. She gave a shout out of thanks to Franklin Congregational Christian for being so supportive.
On that last day of treatment, Mary Ann Riddick was there to assist in putting on and taking off the caps.
Riddick and Herrala have known each other for years. They met while teaching at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy; fourth grade and kindergarten, respectively.
“She’s an inspiration,” Riddick said of her friend and former colleague.
Back in the treatment room, they prepare for the chemo and cold caps. Herrala is dressed warmly, and even has additional coverings in shades and tints of — what else? — pink.
Riddick puts on thick gloves to protect her hands as reaches in for the first cap. With her hands she molds the covering so it will fit properly. There’s already one net covering the hair. She and Herrala work together to get the cap on just right, which includes securing with straps.
The process takes only several minutes, but it’s one that will be repeated several times before, during and after chemotherapy.
On the way home mid-afternoon, they stop at the parking lot of Open Door Church to remove a cap and place on another. Herrala said everything was done by 6 p.m.
Although Arctic Cold Caps have helped her, she cautioned that they are not for everybody.
“It depends on what chemicals are used. They [the caps] are better for some than others,” she said.
“Yes, my hair has thinned through ‘shedding,’ but I cannot begin to tell you how good it makes me feel NOT to be bald and have the constant reminder of the horrible disease I am fighting,” Herrala continued. “I look in the mirror and I see myself pretty ‘normal’ looking. No baldness, no wig, no turban. Even my doctors and other medical caretakers have been pleasantly surprised with the results so far. I have three more main chemo treatments to go, so I still could lose much more hair, but I am not planning on that happening.”