When Bill Hobbs, a 69-year-old semi-retired private equity firm partner and sailor from Dartmouth, Massachusetts, was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an uncommon but aggressive form of cancer inside his lungs last May, he kept his positivity and believed he could do something about it. 

“My wife keeps wanting to know, ‘where’d I get it?’ I’ve got no idea, and, frankly, I really just don’t care. I’ve got what I’ve got, let’s get on with it,” Hobbs said to the health news website, Stat. “To me, nothing in the world is worse than being bored; to stuck there and hanging around at home with a disease… I am not very good at waiting. There is a saying in business: Tick-Tock; time is not your friend, which basically means if you want to do something, do it now”. 

Mesothelioma is usually caused by a prolonged exposure to asbestos and life expectancy of patients is often about a year. 

This January, Oncologist Dr. Ray Mak and Medical Physicist Christopher Williams of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, invited Hobbs to participate in an early trial involving virtual reality (VR). “The doctor mentioned it to me earlier, there is a gentleman who is developing this VR and will I be interested in and I said yes immediately” Hobbs recalled with a grin. 

Seeing the inside of one’s body for the first time

The rationale of the trial is to improve visualization of scans and highlight treatment plans to patients. As Williams explained in a video, “one of the things that happened over the past decade is that we have just got better at the imaging of the human body. With the advances in technology, VR is giving us a new way to present data to a provider or to a patient, in a more meaningful where you can understand better what is going on. We can reduce some of the complexity for people interpreting it”.

Indeed, treating mesothelioma is a complex genomic and with VR, it allows patients to witness what is going on inside their bodies; to understand how the anatomy could be fixed together and why certain procedures need to be performed. During the VR experience, Williams pointed to Hobbs, his heart, chest, and colored areas to avoid when they are planning radiation. 

Hobbs was absolutely thrilled. “Being able to go in and walked through your body; see where the parts are, how big they are relative to everything else and where we think it is and how it moves. I was blown away by the size of my liver and rotating the body and seeing all skeleton structures; my missing 6thrib which has to be taken out for the surgery” 

An overall good feeling created 

Nevertheless, Hobbs knew his present medical condition would not improve, even though it was inspirational and unbelievable to learn what goes on inside his body. “It doesn’t change anything; I am not going to get better quicker because now I know something I didn’t know particularly. But what it does is to show you what they are doing and why they are doing it and that’s a good feeling to have”. 

 “Patients tend to find it very helpful and very enlightening experience, sort of understanding it a bit more… and why does that make sense to him” Williams added. The use of VR in medicine and healthcare became more popular over the past decade, Thus far, AIMed had covered the use of VR in treating addiction and educating new surgeons. We have also explored its cost-effectiveness in a hospital and a brief clinical implementation framework. 

A group of researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine found that 16 out of the 19 participants who had engaged in VR as a form of patient education, agreed they felt more engaged in their healthcare. They presented their findings at the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress last October. Yet, there is still room for more extensive systematic studies to endorse the effectiveness of VR as a “complimentary therapy”. After all, VR is a rather “individualistic experience”, the impact it has on a patient cannot be generalized across. 

Despite so, Hobbs has a different take. “Anyone who has cancer and look at the statistics, it can be pretty bleak, but it’s funny, I haven’t thought about it much. It’s just another challenge, we are going to do, we can do and we will do as well as it’s going to be at the end of the day. It’s funny, I don’t feel like failing at all, maybe that will happen but right now, it’s hey, I was just talking to my doctor, what’s next?” 

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.