Charles Frierson uses virtual reality goggles during cancer treatment.

Virtual reality goggles ease cancer treatment

Virtual reality goggles are an innovative way to help our cancer patients de-stress and escape boredom during treatment. Just ask Charles Frierson. Cancer treatment has been a part of his life since his 2008 diagnosis ― but in 2019, there’s a major difference. Now, when Frierson undergoes chemotherapy at Riverside Cancer Care Center in Newport News, he can escape to the beach or a snowbound mountain cabin.

Research suggests that technology can help patients relax while receiving treatment to heal. Virtual reality goggles are the latest innovation. The Riverside Foundation’s annual Day of Giving in December 2018 raised enough funds to purchase several goggle sets to pilot this approach at Riverside’s cancer centers in Newport News and Williamsburg.

Riverside Music Therapist Greg Gernon, who helps coordinate the virtual reality options, says patients who use the goggles report less stress. This can help someone overcome a needle phobia or manage nerves over how well the treatment is working and what the future holds. “We’re just trying to provide people with whatever support tools they need to get them over the hump,” Gernon said.

For Frierson, that hump is sometimes the boredom of hours-long therapy sessions to treat his breast cancer. The chance to try something new appeals to his tech-loving side. One day recently, he was interested in some sci-fi on Netflix. He adjusted the lightweight goggles over his eyeglasses ― think of a high-tech ski mask ― and slipped on headphones. His eyes focused on the goggles’ interior screen, making it seem like he was actually inside that cozy mountain cabin with the big TV screen, a flickering hearth and a steaming cup of coffee. It was so realistic, Frierson was tempted to reach out for a sip. “You really just put on a headset and are in a different world,” he said.

That’s because the virtual reality technology resonates with the senses as the real thing, a benefit of switching off the so-called “rational brain.” The goggles don’t lock out the world. Frierson is still aware of the medical staff as they do their work. But the goggles do open a door to escaping the cancer treatment stress by going to the beach, playing games with a virtual kitten or even taking a walk in space. The scenarios, Gernon says, are endless.

There’s also an application that in the future could allow patients to participate in real-time virtual support groups with others at Riverside who are receiving cancer treatment. A patient like Frierson could keep his identity anonymous while interacting with fellow cancer patients who may have some shared experiences. “That would be a good aspect, I think, to get your thoughts out there during treatment,” he said. “It would be like social networking but with patients ― and maybe someone who would be male and have breast cancer, like me.”

Until then, he’s happy to demonstrate for other patients another way to spend cancer treatment time, whether it’s to control boredom or reduce stress.

For more information about Riverside’s Cancer Care programs, click here.