Meet the women behind Cap & Conquer, a nonprofit founded by cancer survivors and their loved ones that’s dedicated to helping women preserve their hair — and identities — during chemo treatments
By Leena Rao
One week before Christmas last year, Dr. Molly Powers got an unwelcome surprise: a breast cancer diagnosis.
Powers, a dermatologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Novi and West Bloomfield who was, at the time, the mother of two toddler girls with a third child on the way, says her diagnosis was overwhelming in many ways — including the prospect of losing her hair. “I didn’t want to be defined as the doctor with cancer, and I didn’t want to be labeled at my daughter’s school as the mom with cancer,” says the 32-year-old, who lives in Beverly Hills. “Cancer takes your energy, your independence, your mental health. [With] losing your hair, the disease takes away your identity, too.”
That’s when Powers started considering “cold capping,” which can help patients retain their hair during chemotherapy. The treatment emerged in the 1970s and is thought to reduce blood flow to hair follicles, which then decreases the amount of chemotherapy drugs that reach hair follicles and lessens the chance they fall out. Studies have pointed to the efficacy of scalp-cooling therapy in reducing hair loss during chemotherapy for some patients; research has shown that it’s considered highly effective in 50% to 65% of the women who use it.
Powers wasn’t sure if it would work for her, but she was desperate to “keep some sense of privacy” over her diagnosis. So in tandem with her chemotherapy treatments, which started this past summer, she began wearing cold caps before, during and after chemotherapy treatments. Each cold cap is filled with gel set to -22 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and has to be changed every 20 to 30 minutes by a trained “capper.”
Every patient’s cold capping regimen is tailored to the type of chemotherapy they are undergoing, but patients typically wear the caps for 20 to 50 minutes before chemo treatments, and for 2 to 6 hours afterward. “The days can be very long,” says Powers. “It’s an intense commitment. But focusing on the process of switching and wearing the caps during chemo was a positive distraction from the cancer and the loss of control over everything else.”
Today, having logged just shy of 100 hours of cold capping, Powers has kept almost all of her hair — and her identity. And she’s helping others do the same. She is one of six founders of Cap & Conquer, a newly formed nonprofit that aims to raise funds and awareness for cancer patients in Southeast Michigan who choose to use scalp-cooling therapy. Four of the organization’s founders are fellow cancer survivors who used the technology during their chemotherapy treatments; they all retained their hair throughout the process. (The group includes Ali Weitz, 35, of Bloomfield Hills; Janet Gendelman, 43, of West Bloomfield; and the Novice sisters: Karlee, 31, of Birmingham; and Taylor, 27, and Madison, 23, both of Ann Arbor.)
Cap & Conquer’s origin starts with Weitz, whose own cancer journey is heartbreakingly similar to Powers’. In 2015, Weitz had an 18-month-old son and was excited to expand her family. But her dreams were put on hold when, at age 30, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. Her Royal Oak-based oncologist, Dr. Jeffrey Margolis, suggested she look into cold caps.
Weitz’s first cold cap experience shocked her to her core, literally. “It’s the coldest feeling that you have ever felt in your life,” she says. “It feels like ice is coming out of your eyes.” It’s even possible to get frostbite from the cap, she adds, if you don’t cover certain parts of your ears and the skin around your face. She eventually learned to dress in layers (with three to four pairs of socks), and brought along a heated blanket to her chemotherapy treatments.
“With cancer, I was losing such a large part of who I am [and] keeping my hair was a way to maintain at least one thing for myself,” she says. “It was a leap of faith.” Gendelman — who met Weitz earlier this year and who also heard about the therapy via Dr. Margolis during her treatments for ovarian cancer — echoes Weitz’s sentiments. “I’m a mom, a wife and a teacher, and I didn’t want people to have a pity party over my cancer,” she says. “I didn’t want cancer to define me.”
Weitz was able to keep her long blond locks throughout her treatments, and today, she’s cancer-free. But cold capping came back into her life in 2018 when Madison Novice, a family friend, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Weitz urged her to use the therapy to preserve some semblance of normalcy.
“When you lose your hair, sometimes people look at your differently or feel uncomfortable,” says Novice, who was a senior at Duke University at the time. “It was so nice not to feel alienated in this way.” In February, Novice — who is now in remission — and her sisters started brainstorming with Weitz about a way to spread the message about cold capping and provide support for others. Cap & Conquer officially formed in February; Gendelman and Powers joined over the summer.
Together, the women are hoping to help others learn about cold cap therapy and subsidize the treatment for those who cannot pay out of pocket. Costs vary, but can range into the thousands and are rarely covered by insurance. In October, Cap & Conquer held a virtual 5K walk to raise money for cold cap patients and ended up raising $45,000. In fact, the organization has already funded three patients in Metro Detroit who are currently cold capping during their chemotherapy treatments.
For Powers, Cap & Conquer has become more than a way to give back: It’s a sisterhood. These women share so much more than just a disease. They have shared doctors, advice, and their biggest fears and triumphs. They even share a heated blanket that Weitz passed down; both Novice and Powers used it during their own cold cap treatments. The women are also celebrating another win: Powers finishing her last chemo treatment this fall (next up: radiation).
“These women have been such an important support system through this fight,” says Powers, who gave birth to a healthy son in July, after carrying him through a mastectomy and chemotherapy. “The bond we share is one of the most meaningful relationships I’ve had in my life.”