Virtual Reality, Breast Cancer and Older Women


By Dr. Wanda Gregory, DeepStream VR Advisor

Today when someone mentions virtual reality (VR) we think of Oculus, the Vive or Project Morpheus to enhance and create a more immersive experience for games, movies, theme parks and travel. When we think of users, we think young males. Early adopters. Gamers.

When we think about more serious uses for this technology we consider VR as a tool for patients as a form of exposure therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders and phobias or as a distraction for individuals undergoing treatments such as for burns. We might also think about its positive impact in helping returning soldiers struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). VR used to both distract patients and often times encourage a more reflective, more meditative state of mind.

But what about the use of VR to help cancer patients dealing with chemotherapy? In particular, middle age women? Certainly not a topic discussed at most VR and health meetings or conferences.

Early VR researcher, Susan Schneider, thought decided to take a different approach to the technology in the mid 2000s. Based on the positive impact of Snow World, she placed head mounted displays on a small group of women over 50 who were dealing with breast cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. She wanted to see if VR might be able to help reduce their anxiety associated with such treatments.

While certainly not the demographics considered when one says the letters “VR”, Schneider found that the women in her 2004 study reported a reduction in anxiety and apprehension towards their chemotherapy treatments. Instead of expensive games, she used three CD-ROMs (Oceans Below, A World of Art, or Titanic: Adventures Out of Time). The outcome?  The women reported that the head mounted device was easy to use and more importantly, they experience no cybersickness from the experience.

Schneider expanded her study in 2007 to explore the use of VR for cancer treatments associated with breast, colon, and lung cancers.  Similar to her initial studies, patients reported that VR made the treatments feel shorter which in turn offered an improvement in the patient’s ability to tolerate the sessions. While little research has been done since Schneider’s studies, they do serve as a foundation for other work by the next generation of VR and women’s health researchers.