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When I Tried to Save My Hair With Dry Ice and a Pantyliner

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I stared at the screen, numb, while my husband tried to explain again the surreal website he found.

“You put these ice caps on your head during chemo,” Gary said, “and then you won’t lose your hair.”

I scrolled down and saw women who still had their hair after chemotherapy. 

“Look at this one,” Gary guided the curser to a beauty with silky black hair.

But I was still reeling from my diagnosis and couldn’t get my head around going bald — or of freezing my head — or of having cancer. I was perfectly healthy. A bit of a health zealot, in fact.

“How does it work?”

“Well, we’d have to rent these caps, these blue ones, see?” He pointed to a gel pack shaped like a helmet.

“We’d freeze them with dry ice, and we’d put them on your head on chemo days. Look,” he said again, his finger on the screen, “they have velcro straps to keep them on tight. Chemo meds wouldn’t be able to circulate on your scalp, because your scalp would be frozen. And then you wouldn’t lose your hair.”

It seemed like we just found the almond in my breast — the almond that grew to a walnut in a couple week’s time. Now I was talking about freezing my head.

“It sounds miserable. Does it work?” I asked.

“Might be worth a try,” he said.

I asked him how much it costs.

“Well, it’s a little pricey. They rent the caps for $900 a month. Let’s see, you’ll be in chemo for five months. Look, don’t worry about it, we can afford it.”

I thought, good God. Who spends that kind of money on hair?

“I can get a wig and I’ll be fine. Maybe I’ll use the bee hive your mom has in her closet.” A dusty hat box at my mother-in-law’s held a weird styrofoam head with a pile of hair untouched since 1962.

“You should do it,” Gary said over my shoulder. “Keeping your hair is going to make you feel less sick.”

I kept reading. The caps couldn’t be allowed to warm up or they wouldn’t work. They have to be stored in a commercial freezer before chemo begins and then layered with dry ice in a cooler. Plus we would need a laser thermometer, insulated gloves and a gas mask. None of these supplies were even available in my rural community. The whole idea was beginning to look logistically impossible.

Was it worth it? What kind of lesson am I teaching our daughter? Should Lauren watch me fight for my hair or lose it with dignity?

“Your recovery will go faster if you don’t lose your hair.” Gary had his credit card in hand.  “Let’s try it.”

“I suppose it’s worth a shot,” I said in agreement.

Gary ordered supplies. Since I hate math anyway, I didn’t add up the total and told myself we could afford it.

“Get this!” Gary said, reading a blog. “You’re supposed to cram pantyliners under the cap at your hairline to prevent frostbite. Can you believe that? Pantyliners?”

“Medical innovation meets 1950.” What was I was doing?

The next step was to find dry ice, a project in itself in my town of 900 people.

“I’ll figure it out,” Gary said. He was in problem-solving mode.

When we wheeled our coolers into the hospital, our peculiar luggage created a small scene. 

“Is that a liver?” somebody asked. 

“And a few beers,” Gary flipped back. I giggled at the guy’s expression.

While nurses got my chemo ready, Gary put on his gas mask and opened a cooler. Steam rose up like a cloud over a witch’s cauldron, dry ice mixing with the stale air of the hospital. His gloved hands grabbed a cap covered with thick white frost. We wrestled it onto my head, synching it tight with velcro.

The shock nearly made me vomit, and I instantly understood the warning about frostbite.

“Hand me a pantyliner, will you?”   

Gary had brought me an electric blanket and a coat, but I was shivering. Twenty minutes later, he whipped off my cap which had cooled to minus 15 degrees. Ironically, chunks of my hair got caught in the velcro, ripping out precious strands. 

“Hmmm, we’ll have to figure out a better way for the next one,” Gary said, brushing hair off my blanket. 

When he fit me into a fresh cap, I could see pain behind his smile. He hated inflicting the cold, watching me wince.

I felt the shock again, and we settled into a rhythm: Ice cap on, chat, ice cap off, replacement cap on. Seven hours later, my head was numb. I felt tentatively triumphant.

In two weeks, at my next chemo infusion, we started again.

But by the end of that session, fatigue was taking its toll. The cost was weighing on my mind, and fumes from dry ice were making Gary sick. 

A few nights later, I combed out my long blond hair after my shower.

“Hey, Gary, can you come here?”

A spoon clinked against a ceramic bowl. He must have been eating ice cream.

“What is it?”

We both stared at the sink. “Looks like a bird’s nest,” he said, grabbing blond strands off the porcelain. “The lady said some shedding would be normal.”

“Can this much be normal?”

The next morning, my pillowcase was covered with hair. “That pile looks like a cat.” I said. “A small one.”

He smiled. “Just a kitten.”

In the mirror, I could see my scalp. Pretty soon, the little bit of hair I had left was clumped in three dreadlocks, dangling from a mostly bald head. Part of me was relieved.

Maybe it’s a good thing.

As the sun went down that night, I grabbed scissors, one for my husband and the other for our daughter. “Let’s cut it.”

Lauren lit up at the prospect of adventure before bedtime and we headed to the backyard. The sky was streaky pink, and Lauren’s chubby fingers felt cool on my neck. 

“We’ll scatter it for the birds,” I said and watched my fragrant locks float away in the wind, a little treat for our feathered friends.

Originally published: September 23, 2015
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