It’s the stuff of nightmares, the way we treat head and neck cancers. You’re completely immobilized—a too-tight mesh mask wrapped around your face and neck, restricting your motions, hindering your ability to breathe or swallow. As you lie prone, the mask is bolted down to a table, where you’ll spend the next 20 to 30 minutes being blasted by radiation.
This is a necessary evil; in treating these cancers, oncologists need to target theexact same spot, right down to the millimeter, week after week. It’s nonetheless uncomfortable at best and panic-attack-triggering at worst. Especially if, like Mark Reisenauer’s father, you have extreme claustrophobia.
Reisenauer recalls watching his dad’s traumatizing experience unfold—how it had him in a near-constant state of anxiety, threatening to cancel his treatments. It was hard, feeling so helpless as a caregiver, but there wasn’t really anything he could do.
“When it comes to the non-treatment-based aspects of cancer care, there’s huge unmet need,” Reisenauer reflects today. And that’s kind of a serious problem, given recent studies which have indicated that anxiety and depression could be linked to increased risk of cancer death.
Diane Jooris agrees; mounting anxiety had her sister wanting to cancel breast cancer treatments. So Jooris, a former mind and body intervention specialist at the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center, developed a product that could help: Oncomfort, a virtual reality system that aims to eliminate those negative mental health impacts.
Researchers are already applying VR to a lot more than gaming. Studies have shown that these immersive systems are a convenient, cost-effective way to manage anxiety and other psychiatric symptoms, and the headsets are already being used to treat everything from PTSD to phobias. A recent study found that VR training can improve social skills for people on the autism spectrum, and one team of researchers even developed a VR experience that makes your root canal feel like a walk on the beach.
Oncomfort uses clinical hypnosis techniques, which Jooris says can cause an extreme reduction in anxiety, pain, length of stay in the hospital and the recovery room—and consumption of opioids. “It impacts the patients extensively, from a medication point of view and also from a psychological point of view,” she explains. VR helps relax patients and reduces their perception of pain.