PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Chemotherapy: a dreaded reality for almost every person diagnosed with cancer.

People like Linda Larrimore. She’s currently battling cancer that began in her colon, then spread to other parts of her body.

Every two weeks, she goes to the hospital and watches the chemo slowly drip into her veins.

She knows it’s necessary, but as she sits there watching drop after drop of cancer-toxic chemicals enter her body, she can’t help but dream of being somewhere else. Somewhere beautiful. Peaceful. Cancer-free.

Now, for Linda and other cancer patients, an escape from chemo is a reality … virtual reality.

“it’s very peaceful, and it’s very relaxing,” said Linda.

Virtual reality for chemo treatments came about two years ago when a cancer patient’s caregiver brought it up to one of the nurses at ChristianaCare in Newark, Delaware.

“There’s phones ringing, IVs beeping, there are people sitting around, and maybe it could be I was a patient sitting directly across from another patient, and if I was deteriorating, it’s visible. And sometimes, she thought, patients need an escape from this,” Cindy Waddington RN, of ChristianaCare Cancer Center, said.

From there, the nurses developed a program — testing out comfort and practicality in a busy clinical setting.

And patients were loving it!

“We were gaining momentum with virtual reality,” Waddington says.

But they quickly realized they needed more money to make it work.

“We had to purchase some virtual reality videos,” she said.

Not to mention, each Oculus Rift VR unit costs about $2,000.

“We knew that we were limited, funding wise,” Waddington said.

So they applied for the 2018 Magnet Prize from the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

“It was a $50,000 award, which was awarded to one institution for this year,” she said.

And they won, giving the project a much-needed infusion of cash.

“We bought more laptops and headsets,” Waddington said.

The nurses at ChristianaCare also used the prize money to develop a virtual reality education program to ease fears and prepare patients for the chemotherapy suite. They also hope to take VR to areas of the hospital beyond the cancer center.

With the virtual reality set up, patients can choose from six different settings and see all around them 360 degrees.

And, sometimes, even hear.

“I can hear the water come in on this one, yeah. If you can turn your head far enough, you may see some people,” says Linda as she looks around with the headset on.

Most of the images are universal – like a beautiful beach or a winter wonderland.

Waddington: “Now you’re in a winter landscape.”
Larrimore: “It’s pretty, but I’m glad I’m not there.”

But, in some cases, the VR team can accommodate a patient’s specific request.

“We actually had a patient who loves Cape May, New Jersey. When she saw these videos, [she said], ‘Oh, I wish you had one of Cape May,'” Waddington said. “They took the 360-degree camera to Cape May, videoed, and brought it back to the patient. She was just overjoyed. It was just one of those places that was very special to her. One of those places she can’t get to now during cancer treatments.”

Meanwhile, some thrill-seeking patients have asked for more action-packed imagery, things like riding a roller coaster or speeding around a race track.

The nurses at CristianaCare have now helped start similar VR chemo programs at other medical centers, including MD Anderson, Great Hudson, Virtua Health, Northside and Bakersfield.

The program depends on hospital volunteers to help patients put on the VR goggles and operate the computer, allowing nurses to focus on tending to their treatments.

“For us as nurses, this is a very meaningful service to offer to our patients,” says Waddington. “A lot of those videos will bring up memories for patients. So it’s that connection that we’re really going for.”

A virtual reality connection, that’s making a very real difference for people going through chemo, people like Linda.

“I think it can help patients calm down, bring your blood pressure down. I think virtual reality is just another helpful tool,” she said.

One that can help patients forget, even for a brief moment, that they’re in the middle of a battle against cancer.

KDKA checked with Allegheny Health Network and UPMC to see if they offer VR for chemo.

Neither currently do, but both were intrigued by the concept and are considering looking into it.

Dr. Maria Simbra