January 11, 2017
4 min read

Virtual reality initiative benefits adolescents, young adults with cancer

You've successfully added to your alerts. You will receive an email when new content is published.

Click Here to Manage Email Alerts

We were unable to process your request. Please try again later. If you continue to have this issue please contact customerservice@slackinc.com.

Adolescent and young adults account for more than 70,000 cancer diagnoses annually in the United States, and cancer is the leading cause of disease-associated death in this age group.

USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center collaborated with Springbok Cares — the charitable giving program of California-based Springbok Entertainment — on a virtual reality initiative to help patients in the center’s adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer program escape the anxiety, fear and discomfort they often face during treatment.

James S. Hu

“In addition to an enriched patient experience, the virtual reality patient initiative may provide tangible clinical benefits to our young [patients with cancer],” James S. Hu, MD, FACP, assistant professor of medicine at Keck Medicine of USC and co-director of USC’s AYA program, said in a press release. “Research has demonstrated the benefit of virtual reality technology for a variety of medical, psychological and educational challenges, including reducing side effects and fatigue in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments. [Patients with cancer] with access to virtual reality experiences had improved emotional well-being and fewer negative psychological symptoms.”

HemOnc Today spoke with Hu about how the virtual reality initiative came about, what it entails, and how he and colleagues hope it will help adolescents and young adults cope with their cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Question: How did the idea for the virtual reality initiative come about?

Answer: David R. Freyer, DO, MS, and I co-direct the AYA cancer program, addressing the unique issues and needs of patients between the ages of 15 and 39 years who are afflicted with cancer. The virtual reality concept came about while we were filming an awareness video with Steve Jaffe and Brandon Zamel, co-producers at Springbok Entertainment. During several editing sessions, we decided to put this awareness video into virtual reality format. We did not know what to expect initially, but we knew that this new medium was different from just watching a 2-dimensional video screen. The immersive qualities of the virtual reality medium seemed to really accentuate the content of the original video. This spawned several other meetings with Steve and Brandon, and we are now trying to apply virtual reality to various parts of the AYA program.

Q: Can you describe how the technology works?

A: I am far from a technical person, but a headset with a small screen is mounted in front of your visual field. When you turn your head, you see in all directions and dimensions; it is a recapitulation of what you would normally see in the real world. The headset apparatus is connected to a computer or laptop, and the virtual content is streamed into the headset. The equipment is very portable and can be dropped into a patient’s room in case they are unable to engage in too much physical activity. There also is the capability to interact with the screen. One program that I used was a painting program where there is a continuous screen or surface around you. A virtual easel is placed in your left hand and a virtual paintbrush is placed in your right hand. You then proceed to paint whatever you want on your 360-degree virtual canvas.

Q: What type of content is offered to people in the AYA cancer program?

A: Aside from interactive programs — such as painting — entertainment and educational programs are the main content forms that we have given to our patients. This encompasses everything from a scuba diving experience, in which manta rays and other forms of sea life surround you, to a flying experience, in which you soar at high altitudes over western lands only to land in a teepee with all of the inhabitants performing their daily chores. Other types of content — such as thrill rides and high-impact adventures, or even being chased by dinosaurs — are examples of virtual reality entertainment that our AYA patients have experienced.

Q: How might virtual reality help young cancer patients cope?

A: The potential impact of a program like this for AYA patients is really not known. Certain measures of fatigue and physical well-being have been studied in the non-AYA population using interactive virtual reality content. In our patients, fatigue and conditioning are major problems associated with treatment, and I can see our program using a similar approach to help build stamina and endurance. For now, our content is focused on education and awareness of the unique issues related to AYAs. Education and awareness on fertility issues, side effects of treatment, financial resources, patient experiences, and orientation to medical services have been the emphasis of our content upon which we hope to expand. One of our major initiatives is the idea of building resiliency in our patients. We have discussed using virtual reality as a potential medium to help instill resiliency in our AYA patients who are going through life-changing events related to their cancer.


Q: Will your institution offer this indefinitely?

A : Nothing is formalized yet. We are just getting the content down and are focusing on entertainment and education for now. Springbok Cares allowed us to use some of their content for entertainment purposes. We are taking baby steps now. Our next step is to make this available for our patients in the library at our facility. We will provide virtual reality headsets and a choice of content for them to choose from. Right now, the content is limited, but I am sure we will expand upon it.

Q: What is your ultimate hope for the initiative?

A: We see this program being used to help educate patients about various aspects of resiliency. We could focus on physical, emotional, social, financial and spiritual aspects. We hope our patients, through this medium, will be equipped with the tools needed to get through their cancer diagnosis, treatment and beyond. Ultimately, we hope to get beyond education and actually use it interactively and interventionally to enhance our patients’ recovery and resilience.

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to mention ?

A: We have received a lot of attention on this virtual reality program and I am optimistic about its potential uses in the AYA population. So far, our uses have been limited, but any medium through which our patients can feel more comfortable and more in control of their lives can only help with their care. It is gratifying for me to see that we are taking care of the whole patient and not just the physical side. – by Jennifer Southall

For more information:

James S. Hu, MD, FACP, can be reached at The University of Southern California Comprehensive Cancer Center, 2011 N. Soto St., SST-2830, Los Angeles, CA 90033.

Disclosure: Hu reports no relevant financial disclosures.