It’s strange to think that I was one of the first women able to save their hair during chemotherapy as a UCSF patient participating in the DigniCap feasibility study in 2010. What’s strange is that it’s taken so long for this to become available.

Some people seem to think that the hair loss of cancer treatment is trivial, that it’s just something to be got through, that it’s not important. But the more I think of the cancer patients whom I know here in the United States and those millions whom I don’t know here and abroad, the more I think that we’re not so different.

It’s not the hair that’s important; it’s that losing your hair sets the mark of death upon you. It brands you with this big sign that says, in all caps, ‘CANCER PATIENT.”  Whether or not you end up dying of your cancer, losing your hair makes you scary to other people.  It creates a barrier. It makes people stare. It makes people say silly things.

These days, in the developed world, we don’t see many obviously ill walking around on the street. Heart disease and diabetes are two of the biggest killers, but you can’t tell if someone has those diseases when you look at them. The most obvious sign of illness in a world that has eradicated scourges like smallpox and polio is the unnatural baldness brought on by chemotherapy.

The desire to keep your hair during chemo is not about vanity. It’s about not wanting to create yet another barrier between yourself and the rest of humanity. The desire to belong is so strong that many women will make medical decisions based on the desire to keep their hair.  My oncologist, Dr. Hope Rugo, says that she often has patients who resist chemo because of the hair loss. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that some may die as a result of not doing chemo.

DigniCap may not be able to help those women, but I sure hope the cold cap goes on to become the standard of cancer care. People shouldn’t die because they’re afraid of being bald.