Mind, Body & Spirit

Tucsonan keeps high spirits — and hair — despite cancer

Pam Bridgmon adjusts a cold cap, which reduces hair loss following chemotherapy, on Sharon Arkin. (Sheila Wilensky)

Tucsonan Sharon Arkin, 72, leads an energetic life — and she has no intention of letting cancer set any limits. After missing her annual gynecological exam and Pap smear in 2011, she went in January. An examination by her doctor discovered cancer cells, or a thickening in the walls of her uterus and a separate growth in her right fallopian tube and ovary.

“I had no bleeding, no pain, no symptoms” prior to the diagnosis, Arkin told the AJP. “I wasn’t particularly scared. Maybe I was in denial or have the invincibility of a teenager. I’ll deal with it” was her way of acknowledging the dreaded disease.

Sharon Arkin with a full head of hair after four chemotherapy treatments.

Arkin, who’s a clinical psychologist, also runs Bed and Bagels of Tucson. In February, when she returned home from surgery after a complete hysterectomy, “I had to kick guests out of my bedroom,” she says. They ended up helping her and she still cooked for them. Arkin was inundated with friends “bringing me treats, stuff to read and good wishes.”

Meanwhile, her brother was sending e-mails about a cold cap that would reduce hair loss (penguincoldcaps.com), but Arkin didn’t pay attention until March when she was about to start her first of six chemotherapy sessions. Subsequent treatments were scheduled every three weeks.

“I finally went online. I was blown away by cold cap,” which, she says, involves continuous application of precisely cooled crylon gel caps — at minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit — to the scalp, before, during and after chemotherapy. The blood vessels beneath the skin narrow, reducing the amount of toxic chemicals that reach the hair follicles.

Arkin searched online and found a Phoenix woman who’d had a successful experience with cold caps, and now represents Penguin Cold Cap Therapy. “My doctor was skeptical about them although they’ve been used in Europe for 20 years,” says Arkin. Invented in England, cold caps are supplied by Alopecia Medical Specialties of California. Arizona Oncology, where Arkin was treated, doesn’t endorse cold cap treatment but “has agreed to cooperate if you bring your own equipment and volunteers,” she explains.

Pam Bridgmon is a friend of Arkin’s, a breast cancer survivor whose husband died of colorectal cancer in 2008. Bridgmon went to Phoenix for training in how to maintain and use the cold caps, and, in turn, trained five of Arkin’s other friends. “We had a head freezing party before her first chemo session on March 16,” she says. “Sharon makes everything a party.”

Arkin needs help from friends to put on cold caps for 40 minutes before intravenous chemotherapy, for three or four hours during the treatment, and for four hours after chemotherapy. The whole procedure requires eight caps, which must be changed every half-hour and must be stored in large coolers of dry ice. Two friends accompany her for each session to pull the coolers and put caps on her. They wear special gloves to handle the cold caps. Renting the caps through penguincoldcaps.com cost Arkin $1,500 for three months of chemotherapy.

Clinical trials for the cold cap took place at the University of California, San Diego, notes Arkin. “It made me angry that people weren’t informed about this. There was such a remote risk. I want to be a pioneer and spread the word” about the cold cap.

“Eight percent of women decline chemotherapy because they don’t want to lose their hair,” says Bridgmon. Unfortunately, the cold cap doesn’t work for any blood or lymphatic cancers.

On May 21, the day before her fourth chemo session, Arkin still had a full head of hair. “A patient’s hair usually falls out between the first and second chemo treatment, so after three treatments I knew it was working,” says Arkin. “I didn’t feel sick so I didn’t want to look sick. I didn’t have any side effects from the chemo. I took pre-chemo medication but didn’t need the post-chemo medication. I had no loss of appetite.”

When her son visited from Israel, “we had brunch at Hacienda del Sol, Sonoran hot dogs with all the trimmings, gelato and frozen custard, no problem. I was eating a lot more, not feeling sick, not gaining weight,” she says. “My metabolism must have changed.”

Arkin’s thirst for travel and adventure hasn’t changed. Five days after her first treatment in March, she attended an international family therapists’ conference in Vancouver, B.C. “I stayed there for five days. I think of myself as cautiously adventurous,” says Arkin. “I told my doctor I was going.”

She’s taken two camping trips since starting chemotherapy, says Bridgmon, “in tents, on the ground. It was unbelievable. She didn’t just camp. She ate all the food.”

Arkin’s fourth treatment was on May 22, and her fifth was scheduled for June 5, a delay of a week, so she could visit family in Chicago. “My last chemo is scheduled for July 10. The only concession I’ve made is I gave up a rafting trip [at that time] on the lower Colorado River.”

She’ll have two radiation treatments after her chemotherapy ends. Arkin has two trips coming up soon, one to the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon River, another to Ecuador where she will volunteer on an organic farm. She intends to travel to Israel for the Hula Valley Bird Festival in November.

“And I believe her, she’ll make it, I swear,” says Bridgmon, adding that Arkin’s friends “call ourselves the ‘Sharonites.’ She’s a force of nature. We’re sucked into Sharon’s positive energy.”