Local woman uses experimental therapy to keep hair during battle with cance

Linda Saholt

News Review Correspondent

Local woman uses experimental therapy to keep hair during battle with canceShannon Balas considers herself to be one lucky lady.

After finding out last October that she had breast cancer, Balas and her family tackled the disease head-on. The cancer was very small and appears to have been completely removed. It had not spread. However, the ensuing chemotherapy treatments have been rough on her and her family.

In addition to coping with all the pain, stress, surgery, medical treatments and disruptions to her family and business, the prospect of losing her hair as well was the final straw.

When her parents came to Ridgecrest from Montana to help her recover from surgery, they brought a newspaper clipping about a lady in Boseman, Mont., who had used a new type of therapy to keep her hair.

So Balas looked into it, then found a local provider and is using this therapy, called “cold cap system.” So far she has kept her shoulder-length blonde hair, and wants to let other cancer survivors know that this option is available.

“If I don’t have to feel sick, I don’t want to look sick. I want to keep the dignity I have left,” said Balas.

She and husband Joe have three daughters, and she owns and operates Balas Montessori School, located at 555 S. China Lake Blvd.

The therapy involves an odd-looking cap, which is frozen to -32 degrees F. and is then gently fastened around the patient’s head 50 minutes before chemotherapy treatments are given. Cold caps, which are changed after 20 minutes, then again every 30 minutes after that, are worn in sequence for four hours after the chemo is finished. The entire process takes about seven hours and requires about 14 caps.

“The reason the caps work is that the temperature of the cap closes the hair follicles. This locks the hair follicles and keeps the chemicals in the chemo from entering the follicles and killing the cells,” said Balas.

“It’s definitely working because otherwise I would have lost my hair after the first treatment. I’m on my third treatment, and I’m getting to keep all my hair. I just want other people to know they have this option.”

While this system, which is manufactured by several companies, has been approved in Europe, it is not FDA-approved as yet in this country. The treatment is available, but insurance won’t cover it.

“For me to be able to keep my hair, the cost was not insurmountable,” said Balas. “The whole series of treatments cost about $1,800.”

She says the caps are not painful. “I take an Ibuprofen about an hour before the cap goes on, and my head goes numb within a few minutes anyway. I wear an electric blanket to keep the rest of myself warm.”

The caps are kept in a special freezer in her doctor’s office. The freezer was donated by the Rapunzel Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping cancer pa-tients. For more information, see www.rapunzelproject.org.

“My husband gets the caps out of the freezer one at a time. They have to be checked with an infrared thermometer, to be sure they’re exactly 0 degrees Centigrade when they go on. It’s a very busy day for everyone.”

So how does she cope? “I have a great support system,” she said. “My husband is the strongest support of all. His work has been fantastic — they give him all the time off he needs to be home with me after treatments. My friends have brought over meals, and they take my kids to and from school and sporting events. My employees take care of the school when I can’t be here.

“They’ve all been so supportive, it’s hard to find words to say how much all this has meant to me. I actually have parents [of children at the school] who have volunteered to come in and clean the school to keep me from getting sick. I’m very vulnerable to colds and flu right now.

“It’s amazing how many people have been touched by cancer.”

Friends have started the Balas Montessori Relay For Life team, and will be in the Relay For Life this coming October.

For more information about the cold cap system, check www.msc

-worldwide.com or type “cold cap therapy” into your browser to locate information on different manufacturers as well as pros and cons.

“I’ve had this school in my home for six years, but we grew. The school started in this new location in late August,” said Balas.

“It takes a lot of strength and patience to persevere to start a new business as well as deal with cancer at the same time.

“Attitude for me has been 100 percent of fighting this disease.

“I’m going to kick this thing to the curb!”

Story First Published: 2013-03-20