Alberta Cancer Foundation

Virtual Reality Goggles Could Help Reduce Anxiety During Cancer Treatments

Illustration by Pete Ryan

Take a deep breath. Now, imagine you’re sitting on a white sand beach under a large umbrella while the hot sun drifts lazily across the sky. Palm trees sway and, as you peer out into the vast ocean in front of you, several tall ships slowly make their way across the horizon.

If you’ve ever been on a tropical vacation, this description might trigger memories of your last holiday. But what if, instead of visualizing this image in your mind, you were wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles that did the visualizing for you?

A potential initiative is aiming to see if  virtual reality (VR) therapy can help take some of the stress out of the chemotherapy experience for cancer patients, allowing them to be instantly transported to dream destinations such as Hawaii or Paris during their treatments.

Essentially, patients wearing VR goggles (and headphones) would have images and projections sent directly to their retina/brain pathway, thereby cutting off noise and distractions from the real world.

Garth Likes, director of the Alberta Small Business Innovation and Research Initiative (ASBIRI) and former technology development advisor for Alberta Innovates, says the goal of the potential project is to determine if using VR goggles can help relieve the stress of cancer therapy treatments.

Likes first heard about VR goggles being used on cancer patients from a YouTube video that covered the concept. After watching the video, he thought, “Why can’t we do this here in Alberta?”

To move forward on the idea of VR goggles for cancer patients, Likes has been helping to connect potential stakeholders who could guide the initiative to fruition.

“[Alberta Innovates] is enthusiastic, because [we’re bringing] together private sector companies to play a direct part within the health system,” Likes says.

According to Likes, when a person sees something happening in virtual reality, that image triggers the same areas of the brain that are activated when they’re actually seeing things in the real world, and real memories can be created.

Right now, there is no direct proof that wearing VR goggles during treatment is going to help cancer patients, beyond bringing them the pleasure of “visiting” a faraway destination. But Likes isn’t one to underestimate the power of VR.

“Maybe all that wearing the goggles will do is de-stress a tedious, stressful process you are having to undergo,” he says. “But what if, somehow, it enhances the body-mind connection to affect a positive outcome? Who knows? And this is hopefully where a research project might be born.”