Posted January 22, 2020

Virtual realities: research reveals promising intervention in cancer treatment

Research led by Temple’s Sbarro Institute shows that use of virtual reality can reduce anxiety and improve mood in women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Dr. Antonio Giordano
Photography By: 
Temple University
The Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine, led by Antonio Giordano (pictured), recently published results of a study demonstrating that virtual reality is useful in reducing anxiety and improving mood in women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Each year, more than 250,000 women in the U.S. alone receive a diagnosis of breast cancer, making it the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women. More than 40,000 women annually die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. 

Innovative research led by Temple College of Science and Technology’s Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine suggests that interventions using virtual reality (VR) during chemotherapy have significant potential to improve quality of life—and possibly survival chances, by increasing adherence to therapy—in breast cancer patients.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Cellular Physiology, found that women undergoing chemotherapy who received a VR intervention during treatment had improvements in anxiety levels and mood when compared with women who did not receive the VR intervention. The intervention involved the women wearing a VR headset that immersed them in a relaxing “alternative reality” environment, such as observing animals and nature, while they received chemo infusions.

“We can customize the environment according to the patient’s desires and needs,” explained Antonio Giordano, director of the Sbarro Institute, who led the research. The research was conducted within a cohort of 94 women undergoing chemo for breast cancer at the Pascale Institute in Naples, Italy.

The women were divided into three groups—one received the VR intervention, another received music therapy, and a third received standard care. The VR group fared best, the results showed. Most notably, the women in the group that received standard care showed significantly higher levels of anxiety and deteriorations in moods post-chemotherapy infusions. 

Giordano said the results of this study—the latest in research he and his group have been pursuing for more than a decade—are promising and could help to inform future care standards and implementation of psychological support for patients with cancer. Treatments for cancer, including chemotherapy, can have serious side effects, often leading to patients requesting a reduction or discontinuation of treatments. 

Studies demonstrate that improving therapeutic adherence translates to increased chances of survival without relapses, so supporting patients psychologically in addition to physically can make a significant difference in quality of life and outcomes, he added.

“It can give them a sense of calm, give them more courage, and therefore boost their motivation to resist with more strength,” Giordano said.