Dr. Cole discusses the aesthetic of hair loss during chemotherapy and how laser hair regrowth therapy can help

By Marilyn Hawkes

Phoenix Magazine

May 2015

Valley doctors give chemo patients and people with pattern baldness confidence in their coiffures.

Dr. Shelly Friedman will be the first to tell you that laser therapy hair restoration is not an FDA-cleared procedure for chemotherapy patients. He will also tell you that based on his experience, it works.

Friedman, a dermatologist and hair transplant surgeon with the Scottsdale Institute for Cosmetic Dermatology, says he was cynical at first, but since performing thousands of low-level laser therapy (LLLT) treatments on women after chemotherapy, as well as patients with pattern baldness, he’s now a believer. Nearly 40 percent of Friedman’s patients are women.

Laser hair therapy is a widespread industry in the Valley, but Friedman is one of a handful of physicians who use it for cancer patients. There are no widely accepted standards regarding the dose, number or length of treatments, and little research on LLLT for cancer patients has been done to date. Friedman and other LLLT practitioners – including Dr. Jeffrey Cole, chief surgeon for National Hair Centers in Phoenix, which offers LLLT to chemotherapy patients for free – say the therapy isn’t more widespread because the medical community is rightly focused more on saving lives than saving hair, and nobody has stepped up to bankroll funding for FDA approval studies.

Friedman purchased his first laser and started treating patients with female pattern hair loss in 2007, and subsequently women with hair loss due to chemotherapy and radiation in 2009. All of his cancer patients are women. He says male cancer patients don’t come to him, and speculates that’s because “the psycho-social effects [of hair loss from chemotherapy] are greater for women than men.” Friedman understands how devastating hair loss can be after cancer treatment. Many years ago, his wife developed breast cancer and the subsequent treatment caused hair loss. “I tried everything to prevent her hair from falling out,” he says. “I was putting Rogaine on twice a day. Finally, she went to her stylist and shaved it off. It was very difficult for me because I’m a dermatologist and I couldn’t help her.”

Laser therapy has been a “godsend,” Friedman says. “Does it work on everybody? Absolutely not, but it’s a very high percentage.”

How it works

Typically, patients will undergo in-office laser treatment for 30 minutes three times a week, sitting on a chair with the laser positioned overhead while they watch TV or read. The laser increases blood supply to the scalp, which stimulates and accelerates hair growth without heat, sound or vibration. “We use the laser light to create energy,” Friedman says. “It supercharges the hair follicle to get it to grow faster.” (see graphic)

In 2009, Friedman and colleague Carly Klein established the American Society for Hair Loss. The society has a partnership with the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center to provide laser therapy for chemo patients. According to the patient brochure from the Piper Center, “patients receiving laser therapy treatments typically see their hair growing back within 5-6 months, as opposed to 9-10 months without treatment.”

Though laser therapy is FDA-approved as a treatment for female and male pattern baldness, the agency hasn’t green-lit the treatment for cancer patients. One reason: Hair regrowth is hard to qualify and quantify because every patient’s hair grows at a different rate. The studies required for FDA approval are also very costly. “No one is going to spend the $1 million to do a study because at this point, the manufacturers are a little nervous,” Friedman says. “When you’re dealing with cancer, you’re getting into a different realm and a lot of companies don’t even want to get involved. Right now, it’s not a priority for them.”

Cole of National Hair Centers speculates that more cancer centers and doctors don’t offer LLLT because “the medical community has [not] caught on that [appearances] are important to people, so they kind of dismiss it, which is unfortunate. But laser therapy is one of those awesome things that we can do to regenerate hair after medications. [Cancer] doctors are worried about saving lives. I totally get that. The aesthetic of losing hair with the treatment – that’s not on their bucket list of, ‘Oh, we need to address that.’ But it’s on ours.”