How Is Virtual Reality Being Used to Help Cancer Patients?

By Adrian Johansen, freelance writer; @AdrianJohanse18.

When you hear the words “cancer treatment,” you probably think of things like chemotherapy, radiation or even hair loss. While many cancer patients go through painful procedures that create uncomfortable and life-changing side effects, there might be new ways to help them deal with the disease and their care.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are technology trends in healthcare that have recently taken the industry by storm. While many researchers have been interested in this technology for some time, it’s only been in the past few years that studies have started to prove its usefulness in helping cancer patients undergoing care. Here are the essentials you should know to understand the use of VR and AR for cancer patients.

What are VR and AR?

Virtual reality is an immersive technology that closes the user off from the real world. Using a headset and video screen, the user can feel the experience of being transported to new locations. If you’re unfamiliar with this technology, do a quick online search to find videos of people who feel they are falling or that things are moving toward them in such a way that they instinctively shift their body to avoid contact. These videos are amusing, but this technology is so much more than just fun.

Augmented reality, often called AR, uses a camera or smartphone to add digital elements to the real world. Typical uses are lenses on the popular app Snapchat or the ever-intriguing game of Pokemon Go. AR has many applications in healthcare as well.

Use of VR and AR in healthcare

Medicine and other treatments are both palliative and curative. However, all medicines and procedures have limitations and at times create negative effects that patients must adapt to or learn to overcome. Researchers continually look for new ways to impact patient care with immersive technologies and other cutting-edge advancements. Both AR and VR have received acclaim for their role in the healthcare industry.

Not only can this tech help patients, but it can improve healthcare as a whole. A few of the ways VR is impacting healthcare can be seen in the treatment of chronic pain, the restoration of low vision in older patients or those with damaged vision, and the expedited recovery of patients after traumatic brain injury.

These uses of VR are for physical ailments, but it can also be used for people with mental health needs. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) impacts many veterans who have come home from war and struggle with the effects of traumatic events they’ve witnessed. VR can be used to modify thoughts and behaviors by immersing the patient into environments that may evoke their symptoms, but in a safe place with qualified clinicians nearby. VR and AR are revolutionary solutions that surpass conventional medical treatments.

Cutting-edge treatment in cancer care

From the young to the old, VR and AR are used to help cancer patients cope with uncomfortable symptoms. The technologies allows patients to escape to a digital world free of pain, anxiety, and symptoms like nausea when nurses and physicians provide care. Young cancer patients use VR to help with procedures such as port access, a necessary process that must take place each time they have chemotherapy and at set intervals just to keep the device functioning. Parents and children alike discuss the positive effects of having VR and AR technology during treatments.

Immersive technology can transport the user to places they could never see and makes their brain believe they are truly there. Because of the success of VR in cancer care, experts have begun wondering if it might also have a role in cancer prevention. The power of VR could possibly change the lifestyle habits of people with increased risk of developing cancer to change the trajectory of their life and potential for disease.

The thought behind the use of VR for cancer prevention is to provide a safe place for people who need therapies such as smoking cessation to learn methods to stop the habit. By incrementally learning new behaviors in a controlled environment, healthcare providers could possibly decrease a patient’s risk of developing the disease.

What’s next for VR and cancer treatment?

The possibilities of VR and AR as ways to help cancer patients are endless. Experts continue to search for new ways to use these advancements to increase the quality of life of those with cancer. If VR can be used a way to successfully change lifestyle habits of those at a higher risk of developing cancer, researchers could shift their focus to finding a cure for the disease, rather than just helping patients tolerate treatment.

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