How Virtual Reality Helped Me Cope With Cancer

How Virtual Reality Helped Me Cope With Cancer
May 1, 2017

In 2014, Julie Conradt was feeling a little under the weather, but otherwise reasonably well. She had symptoms of the flu and was feeling run down, seemingly the sort of scenario that calls for a throat lozenge and paracetamol.


Then she felt a lump.


“I noticed a lump under my armpit, and I thought it was breast cancer initially,” she says. “We had a scan and a fine needle aspiration and it tested positive to melanoma.”


Surprisingly, Julie had no primary showing – the usual mole or crusty sun spot. Yet, melanoma had taken route in her lymph nodes and spread through her body.


“I had 11 tumours, mainly in the lungs but also a couple on the spine, so they started me on a series of treatments.”


For Julie, a fourth generation manufacturer of cheese and yoghurt products out of Yagoona in south-western Sydney, this was not her first rodeo with melanoma. Her father had passed away from the cancer, so it was probable her own was hereditary.


Knowing this, Julie underwent a stoic treatment regime. “Then, nearly two years ago the treatment that they had originally started me on stopped working,” she says.


The tumours were newly aggressive. Luckily, Julie was able to get on a new cancer trial involving immunotherapy at RPA.


“It works by boosting your own immune system and it’s been so successful,” Julie explains. “It’s been an incredible journey, as you can imagine. I have a young family to think about, a loving husband, a business and employees.”


Chris O'Brien Lifehouse, the place where Julie was undergoing her treatments, recently partnered with Samsung to bring new virtual reality technology to cancer patients as a form of distraction therapy. The Lifehouse approached Julie to see whether she would like to try this new advancement, which of course, she did.


"The fact is that cancer treatment isn’t a walk in the park. You have to sit for long periods, have repeated consults, needles, prodding and people asking you questions you probably don’t feel like answering. That doesn’t even include the looming cloud of doubt whether or not the process will be worth the effort."


Michael Marthick, director of integrated medicine at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, knows this very well.


“Some people have to spend hours sitting in a chemotherapy chair during treatment. Virtual reality is such an all-encompassing experience that it can lift patients out of that chair and take them to a yurt in Mongolia, or for a walk on the Great Wall of China and give them a break from treatment,” he says.


For his team, the virtual reality trial is an extension of their ‘model of care’. “It allows us to support people with cancer, not just in their physical care with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but also their emotional and psychological care.”


This is exactly what happened for Julie.


“When I put the goggles on my head I was just transported. It was incredible.”


Julie chose the galaxy theme, involving a series of other-worldly experiences. “It’s a world where you can walk on water or swim with the dolphins. You can look behind you and see shooting stars, or even the northern lights. There’s also Indians dancing around a fire, waterfalls and such. You have earphones on as well so you can hear the water trickling and the crackling fire in the background. You’re truly immersed in it.”


She was entirely oblivious to what was around her – a bleak cancer ward and a needle in her arm. She noticed a change in her breathing and that she was finally relaxed.


“I had become much calmer and afterwards, was more mindful about myself. For me, wellness isn’t just about the physical treatment; it’s about the mental too.”


In this way, experiencing virtual reality has helped her through her cancer treatment, and she’s finally beaten it.


“I’ve got a clean bill of health and I’m positive about the future and looking forward to making more cheese and yoghurt and making people happy.”


Her final remarks?


“You know what I was thinking? It actually brings ability to a disability. It’s ability for me to forget what’s going on in the real world and I’m virtually on another planet or on an island somewhere so I’m looking forward to that side of it for sure. It’s very positive.”

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