Thanks to virtual-reality technology, many chemotherapy patients are escaping the dreary confines of the hospital for a restorative afternoon at the beach.

You’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer, and a thousand worries invade your mind. You wonder how your life will change, and how much life you have left to live. You think about your family and friends and how they’ll cope with your illness. You worry about your job, your pets, and the countless little tasks you take care of every day to make your home function.

Then your doctor informs you of your treatment options. You hear the word “chemotherapy,” and you remember a scene you once saw in a movie. A character receiving chemo suffered from intense pain and unrelenting nausea. It was a terrible film. Regardless, you choose this treatment option because it is your best shot at living. And you want to live. In fact, living has become the primary goal.

When you go to the infusion clinic, everyone is kind and welcoming. They do their best to make you comfortable. Unfortunately, chemotherapy can be very uncomfortable. It’s poison, afterall, and that same poison you hope will eviscerate the cancer cells also saps your energy, making you miserable. You sit in a big, comfortable chair in an open bay. Nurses are in and out. IVs drip and machines beep. Around you are 15 more big chairs, each holding another cancer patient. Some of them watch TV. Some of them talk to a “chemo buddy.” And many of them look scared, uncomfortable, and sick. It’s impossible to be in this room and not think about your own mortality. 

But what if you didn’t have to be there? What if you could receive your chemotherapy treatments, but not have to be “present” for them at all? Thanks to virtual-reality (VR) technology, many chemotherapy patients are able to do just that.

In a number of oncology clinics around the country, doctors and nurses are using VR to help ease patients’ anxiety and stress during chemotherapy and to improve the patient experience. Doctors and nurses have used distraction as a clinical tool for decades. A 1993 study found cognitive distraction and relaxation training helped to relieve anxiety and distress for chemotherapy patients. Around the same time, scientists began learning about VR and its many possibilities.

By 1997, a report from the journal Computer cited the use of VR as a medical intervention for patients undergoing a routine gastric procedure. According to a 2007 study from the Oncology Nursing Society, VR is an excellent distraction tool for chemotherapy, and it can make treatments seem shorter. Most patients who tried VR during their treatments said they would use it again. Other studies have found a significant reduction in anxiety, fatigue, and symptom distress, including nausea, vomiting, and difficulty concentrating.

As of 2017, the VR health care market has grown to more than $976 million, and Grand View Research, a U.S.-based market research and consulting company, predicts it will top $5.1 billion by 2025. “The infusion suite comes with noise, it comes with activity,” says Cynthia Waddington, CNS, clinical director of cancer programs at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. “IV pumps are beeping, the phones are ringing, nurses are walking back and forth, patients are coming and going.” This doesn’t create the relaxing atmosphere most patients desire in their weekly treatment appointments.

How cool is it that our patients here at their chemo appointments get to see this quality technology that the regular community doesn’t have access to? It really is a treat for them.

Waddington says Christiana Care started using VR in their chemotherapy suites almost two years ago, after a patient’s visitor brought the idea to their medical director. “The visitor came to us because she realized how hard it was, how long of a day it can be, how hard it can be to find something to do to be comfortable,” Waddington says. “But most importantly, she realized there was no escape. There needed to be an escape from the harsh reality.”

Everyone at Christiana Care loved the idea. “It’s something novel for our patients,” says Waddington. “It’s so cutting edge. And how cool is it that our patients here at their chemo appointments get to see this quality technology that the regular community doesn’t have access to? It really is a treat for them.” 

A study looking at the use of VR to combat anxiety during chemotherapy is underway at the Marie Yeager Cancer Center, part of Spectrum Health Lakeland, in St. Joseph, Michigan. Researchers are conducting a cross-sectional design study to see if VR has an overall impact on patients’ level of anxiety from chemotherapy. 

“A lot of the patients are anxious because of the nature of cancer, or they may be anxious because of their socioeconomic and family status,” says Dr. Barbara Schmidtman, manager of radiation oncology and ambulatory infusion at Marie Yeager and the principal investigator on the study. “Many of our patients are undergoing a great deal of distress.”

Brandon Beede, information security project manager for Marie Yeager, adds, “At least while they’re in our care, I like to take the extra steps to see if VR can take them out of their current reality and stress to extract them to places that they might not be able to see because they are so connected to their care.” 

And VR can truly take you into a brand-new reality. “The first time I put on a virtual-reality headset, I literally had tears in my eyes because I was laughing so hard,” says Melanie Meehan, a clinical research associate at Marie Yeager. “I just could not believe how realistic it was and how I could look 360 all the way around and feel like I was somewhere else.”


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