Breast cancer

Cooling caps a blessing during DeeAnn's breast cancer treatment

A patient wearing a cooling cap being visted by University of Wisconsin mascot Bucky Badger

DeeAnn Schmidt's family is no stranger to cancer.

She's the third sister in the family to be treated for breast cancer. So, when the Fond du Lac woman learned in 2018 that she, too, had developed breast cancer, "My nine-year-old was very upset, and said, 'Are you going to go bald, too?' ''

Fortunately, the answer to that question was no.

When it was time for her chemo treatments to begin, her nurse at the UW Health Breast Center suggested using cooling caps. Both of UW Carbone's Madison chemotherapy clinics offer a cooling cap system for use during chemotherapy. The caps contain circulating refrigerant, which chills the scalp, closing the blood vessels and preventing the drugs from getting into the hair follicles.

"It has been such a blessing to me," Schmidt says. "It was so hard for my sisters to lose their hair. And growing it back out is no fun, either."

Schmidt paid $2,200 for caps to wear during her 12 rounds of chemotherapy (the cooling caps vendor, Paxman, works with a non-profit called Hair-to-Stay that provides financial assistance for low income patients). She says the cold is "very tolerable" and she coped by cuddling in a warm blanket. She used the caps for a half hour before and an hour after the infusion, to reduce the damage to the hair follicles.

"I'd recommend it to everyone. I lost my eyebrows, my eyelashes and all the hair on my body," she says. But her long blonde hair stayed right where it was. "I'm beyond grateful; you wear your hair everywhere."

The benefits were many. Keeping her hair meant keeping her privacy. The family owns a manufacturing business, and she and her husband, Rick, frequently entertain international customers. Looking healthy meant not having to discuss her treatment with everyone.

She even had an amusing moment when she was at the clinic for chemo. A friend who was bald from her own chemotherapy was with her and the nurses were startled that Schmidt, and not her friend, was the patient.

Looking normal made her children less frightened than they may have been (and sometimes she had to remind them, "Hey, mom is sick, can you pitch in a little?"). The family was also dealing with another serious health issue during her treatment: her grandson was born with a major heart defect that eventually required a transplant.

"You go through so many emotions with cancer, so much anger and feeling so sick,'' she says, adding that she knows that for other women, hair is the least of their concerns as they go through treatment.

But for Schmidt, keeping her hair gave her a boost and helped her feel more normal.

"I'd wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and see that I still had my hair," she says. "I'd feel like: 'I've got this. I can face anything.'"