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Cold cap therapy

Posted: Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Karen Viger, Campbell, Minn., was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram in January. A month later she underwent a single mastectomy to remove her right breast, followed immediately by reconstruction surgery.

Due to the size of the tumor, 5 cm, her oncologist recommended an intensive course of chemotherapy treatment, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy.

Viger can't control the diagnosis nor the treatments, but one way she can fight back is to battle for her hair. She and her husband, Paul Viger, have turned to cold cap therapy to do just that.

Cold cap technology has been successfully used in Europe for 20 years. As doctors refined the therapy, the cap has given patients a 90 to 95 percent success rate. The cap is cooled to 22 degrees below zero and placed on the patient's scalp, Paul Viger said. The cap cools the head and decreases the amount of chemotherapy to the scalp. This helps save the hair follicles and if it works, Viger will keep her hair.

In the type of chemo treatments she is undertaking, a patient's hair usually falls out within 10-14 days. Viger is hoping that by the time she comes back for her second chemo treatment April 23, her hair is still firmly planted on her head.

She underwent her first chemo treatment Monday morning at Essentia Health Wahpeton Clinic. Already nervous about this first step, Viger and her husband had the dry ice on hand in two coolers to replace the cap every 30 minutes during the treatment. Viger said she had to keep replacing the cap up to four hours after the treatment was over, so she had to wear the cap for seven hours Monday. After the first 20 minutes her head was starting to get cold.

Paul Viger stood by with the timer and the second cap ready to go when the first timer went off. He has felt helpless throughout much of his wife's diagnosis and surgery. Although he couldn't do anything about the former, he can help her in this battle. The cold cap isn't about vanity, he said. Viger's reasoning behind the therapy with the cold cap is to control one aspect of her life.

"Women are more emotionally attached to their hair," Viger said with a laugh.

Paul Viger doesn't want his wife to look in the mirror and see a stranger looking back. He doesn't want her to see a bald head every morning. He wants her to look as normal as possible, for Viger and their children, so saving her hair makes sense to him.

Viger laughed a lot initially. Some of the laughter may have been nerves, but more had to do with her fighting back.

"I'm a fighter," she said, refusing to give in to tears.

The tears may have come later when the cold cap made her head feel like a block of ice, but for now the laughter and smiles showed strength. Viger has a lot to fight for: a loving husband, four beautiful children and a vast support network of family and friends.

As she fights both for her life and hair, Viger's personal struggle will be documented for Daily News readers. Viger has agreed to allow readers to witness her personal struggle. She is betting on the 90 to 95 percent success rate in Europe and wants people to know they have a choice.

"If this works, everything will have been worth it," she said in an earlier interview.

Viger is a diabetic educator at Essential Health Wahpeton Clinic. As a nurse, she has spent 10 of her 13 years in Wahpeton giving chemotherapy treatments to patients.

"A person doesn't understand the emotions a patient goes through unless they face the same diagnosis," she said.