Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand has announced funding for a treatment to reduce hair loss during chemotherapy for women with breast cancer.
BCFNZ chief executive Evangelia Henderson said it's an important development that will help minimise an issue some cancer patients dread.
"Women tell us it's almost more distressing to lose their hair sometimes than a breast," she told 1 NEWS.
"It's almost as if women are advertising to the world that they have cancer."
Mrs Henderson said New Zealand is late to introduce the technology, which is used in most public hospitals in the United Kingdom and is growing in use in Australia and the United States.
Donations to the charity will fund up to 10 scalp cooling systems for public hospitals around the country, at a cost of up to $500,000.
The main part of a scalp cooling system is a cold cap, which is worn on the patient's head during treatment to cool the scalp, narrowing blood vessels to prevent chemotherapy medicine reaching the hair follicles.
It is only effective with some medicines and is only used for the treatment of solid tumours, not blood cancers.
"For our hospital system, it's hardly ever going to be a priority so it's really important for us as an NGO (non-governmental organisation), the Breast Cancer Foundation, to sort of step up and make this happen," Mrs Henderson said.
'I had a sense of control and maintained my confidence’
Breast cancer survivor Louise Kuegler is welcoming the news following her own experience using a cold cap at an Auckland private clinic, which maintained at least 70 per cent of her hair during chemotherapy.
"I've had long hair for pretty much all of my life and it's a key part of my identity," she said.
Following her diagnosis in 2017, Ms Kuegler's oncologist told her about the cooling system at the clinic but at that stage there was little education on how to administer the treatment, so her husband contacted cold cap company Paxman to learn and later gave her the treatment himself.
Some people find the experience chilly and get headaches during treatment.
For Ms Kuegler, feeling her scalp cooling wasn't a "big deal" and the extra time required each therapy to have the treatment was "well worth it."
"After about 10 minutes, it's fine and you just kind of breathe through it and your head acclimatises to the cold temperature."
Ms Kuegler said the cold cap brought choice and control to a situation no one wants to find themselves in.
"I had a sense of control and maintained my confidence and self-esteem.
"I think it helped my children go through the journey with me and was less traumatic for them because there wasn't a constant reminder that Mum was having cancer treatment," she said.
The funding announcement follows a successful pilot at Nelson Hospital, where no patient needed to wear a wig following chemotherapy and hair loss ranged from 50 per cent to just 10 per cent.
Oncologist Dr Kate Gregory approached BCFNZ to run the trial after witnessing the positive results from treatment in UK hospitals, and the foundation funded a cold cap and nurse to give patients the treatment.
"Most people did have some thinning but not to a degree that they would necessarily feel that they needed to cover their heads up.
"Most patients actually tolerated the treatment extremely well," Dr Gregory said.
Dr Gregory said the cold cap enabled one woman who wanted to keep her cancer private to do so.
Breast Cancer Foundation NZ chief executive Evangelia Henderson said she hoped clinicians from district health boards around the country will be willing to introduce the treatment and apply for a cold cap, including smaller regions that often don't have the latest equipment.
DHBs who apply will need to demonstrate the feasibility of the treatment being added to the hospital's chemotherapy service, she said.
"It's probably more likely that the smaller units would be able to make it happen more quickly than the larger clinics in the cities... there is a slightly longer waiting time for each chemo patient," she said.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health declined to say whether the organisation supports the use of cold caps, saying it was a question for DHBS who are funded to provide health services.