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Using Virtual Reality to Ease Psychological Impact of Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatments, in addition to being physically uncomfortable, can also be emotionally distressing for patients as they cope with their disease.

Jacek Pinski, MD, a medical oncologist with the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of Keck Medicine of USC, has launched a pilot study focusing on the impact of virtual reality on the psychological well-being of cancer patients.

The pilot study — which Pinski recently discussed before the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting — is focused on patients undergoing bone marrow biopsies.

According to Pinski, who is also the executive clinical director of USC’s Institute for Arts in Medicine, VR and other art forms can be part of a holistic approach to cancer treatment.

“On the surface, medicine and the arts appear to have little in common,” Pinski said, “but I believe the synergy and symbiosis of these tools can benefit patients.”

VR simulations incorporated into bone marrow biopsy

Pinski and his team are enrolling 30 patients from Keck Medical Center of USC for the pilot study. Half of the participants receive VR along with their bone marrow biopsy care; the other half only receive the standard of care.

Participants include patients with leukemia and other blood diseases. These patients typically undergo multiple bone marrow biopsies over the course of their treatment to assess how they’re responding to therapy.

The VR patients wear a headset that simulates a realistic, 3D environment of the patient’s choosing — for example, the patient may feel like they’re on a beach or in the mountains.

The VR simulation lasts up to one hour. Meditation music is also utilized as a relaxation technique.

According to Pinski, the imagery and audio within the VR environment serve as more than just a distraction for the patient.

“There have been several studies done, especially with music, showing how it influences centers of the brain that are responsible for pain perception,” Pinski said.

He adds that other studies have been conducted in emergency room settings, burn units and pediatric departments to analyze how VR impacts patients’ perceived pain levels. 

Combining physiologic data with patient-reported pain and anxiety scales

For the study, the clinical team monitors physiologic parameters such as blood pressure and heart rate, while also measuring biomarkers of stress like serum cortisol, C-reactive protein and fibrinogen. 

Patient-reported pain and anxiety scores are another major component. Patients are asked about their experience at specified time intervals before, during and after the bone marrow biopsy. 

Pinski and his team utilize visual analog scales in which patients choose a number between 0 and 10 — with 0 representing no pain/anxiety at all and 10 being the worst possible.

According to Pinski, while the pilot study was designed to explore whether VR is a feasible and safe solution for pain and stress management, further and more in-depth studies are indicated.

“We are in the process of putting together a clinical trial of patients admitted to the hospital for chemotherapies,” Pinski said. “We’ll track the effects of music and VR on anxiety levels and stress hormones, and clinical outcomes will be investigated as well.”