Virtual Reality Makes Chemotherapy Delivery More Tolerable

October 1, 2006

Virtual reality interventions that provide a distracting, immersive environment may make chemotherapy treatments more tolerable for cancer patients

AMELIA ISLAND, Florida—Virtual reality interventions that provide a distracting, immersive environment may make chemotherapy treatments more tolerable for cancer patients, according to a study presented at the American Psychosocial Oncology Society (APOS) Third Annual Conference (abstract II-4).

"Chemotherapy is difficult to endure, but the chances for survival are enhanced when patients receive all their recommended chemotherapy treatments on time. We know that distraction interventions provide relief for a variety of symptoms, and our hope was that VR, which engages several senses, would have a similar effect on cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy," said Susan M. Schneider, PhD, RN, associate professor, Duke University School of Nursing.

Dr. Schneider and her colleagues randomized 123 patients with a first diagnosis of breast, lung, or colon cancer to receive a virtual reality intervention at either their first or second chemotherapy treatment. Study outcomes were symptom distress, anxiety, and fatigue, immediately after using virtual reality and 48 hours later.

Patients had four virtual reality programs to choose from: Deep sea diving, touring an art museum, solving a mystery on the Titanic, and exploring ancient worlds. The patients used virtual reality for an average of 58 minutes (range, 15 to 202 minutes).

Less Anxiety

Individuals who received virtual reality at their first chemotherapy session had a significant decrease in their anxiety, compared with those who got virtual reality at their second session, Dr. Schneider reported.

"It seems that during their very first chemotherapy session, patients are more anxious than they are at subsequent ones, and the group who used virtual reality during their first chemotherapy showed improvements in their anxiety," Dr. Schneider said. "We hypothesized that those who got the virtual reality at their second chemo session were probably a little less anxious about their chemotherapy, since they had already survived one, and our data showed that."

A key and consistent finding was that virtual reality altered patients' perception of time. Patients thought their chemotherapy treatment lasted on average 20 minutes less than it actually did, Dr. Schneider noted.

All patients said that chemotherapy was easier and seemed to go faster with virtual reality than without it, and no subjects indicated that virtual reality made them feel worse or gave them "cybersickness" (motion sickness producing such symptoms as nausea, headache, and dizziness). The majority of patients (86%) indicated they would use it again, Dr. Schneider said.

Benefits to Nurses

The intervention also made life easier for the attending nurses, she added. "The nurses started to notice that they could give the chemotherapy infusions a little faster if someone had a virtual reality headset on," Dr. Schneider said. "They were less likely to be interrupted in their work if patients were using virtual reality. The nurses were happy with it because the patients were happy."

Dr. Schneider did caution that patients should be monitored while they are using virtual reality in case they develop any untoward side effects, such as headache.