Virtual reality can take the stress out of breast cancer treatment

Enduring chemotherapy can be stressful for cancer patients, but visiting an alternate world during the process may offer some relief.

That’s what a group of Italian researchers found, noting that women who wore a virtual reality headset while receiving chemotherapy reported less anxiety and a better mood following treatment. The results, published Jan. 20 in the Journal of Cellular Physiology, offer a positive foundation for further technology-based oncology research.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer is traumatizing, and can cause severe stress and depression from that moment, throughout chemotherapy and even after treatment is completed.

“Although modern cancer treatments have partially reduced the side effects on health and quality of life, these therapies are experienced with considerable suffering by women and these can sometimes develop conditioned responses to treatments…,” Andrea Chirico, a psycho-oncologist at the Sapienza University of Rome, and colleagues said. They pointed specifically to anticipatory anxiety before chemo, frequent requests to reduce dosages and, by result, impact on the drug’s effectiveness.

The researchers asked 94 women to take a psychological test analyzing their stress and mood before and after chemotherapy for breast cancer. During treatment, 30 patients put on a virtual reality headset where they could explore a deserted island, walk through a forest, complete yoga and go swimming, among other activities.

Another 30 were exposed to music therapy while 34 women were placed in a control group without any intervention. The latter is standard of care at the Pascale Institute’s oncology department in Naples, Italy.

Overall, women who were able to visit an alternate reality during treatment had substantially lowered anxiety levels, while those who received no coping mechanism reported increased anxiety and worsened mood.

“Our data suggest that both virtual reality and music therapy are useful interventions for alleviating anxiety and for improving mood states in breast cancer patients during chemotherapy,” the investigators wrote. “Moreover, virtual reality seems more effective than music therapy in relieving anxiety, depression and fatigue.”