When Melissa Long arrived for her final chemotherapy treatment for stage 3 breast cancer, she took a deep breath, struggled to control her mounting anxiety — then settled in for the ride of her life.
Or rather, the ride in front of her life.
The 47-year-old Aurora resident donned virtual reality (VR) goggles and with her partner Kevin Welsh by her side, she traveled the world on a virtual tour that helped distract her from the immense fear she faced after a year culminating in a difficult medical treatment.
While manning a computer tablet ‘steering wheel’ and selecting various destinations, Long’s body never left the reclining padded seat on the third floor of the UCHealth Lone Tree Medical Center†
VR during cancer treatment
She traveled to Antarctica, where a colony of playful penguins made her laugh; to a babbling brook that evoked memories of beloved Colorado mountain hikes; to a serene beach that reminded her of growing up near Lake Michigan; to a swamp game where alligators chewed at her feet.
“I swear it immediately took me to a better and happier place,” she said. “For me it was just so cool. The virtual reality experience really got me there.”
This simulated ride gave her moments of much-needed rest and escape after a year of darkness and despair. She described herself as a type A go-getter, and she was more used to spending her summers climbing the state and her winters skiing.
“It has been a real journey. But there have also been some silver liners in my experience. I feel so blessed that we ended up at UCHealth and had an amazing team – they were phenomenal.”
Long is strategic account manager for HOKA, an athletic company that makes running shoes specifically designed for stability in difficult terrain. Her life has been put to the test in similar ways over the past 16 months, as she had to navigate bumps, turns and low valleys before she could catch another glimpse of the mountains.
Set aside and overwhelmed by cancer
It was March 2021 and just as she was hoping that Covid-19 vaccines would bring her daily life back to normal, Long felt a lump in her left breast. She had just turned 46 and because of her age and healthy lifestyle, she hoped for the best. But she had cause for concern: Her paternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer at age 47 and her paternal aunt died of breast cancer at age 43.
After a battery of tests, including mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, breast MRIs, genetic testing, echocardiograms, a neck-to-pelvic CT scan, and a whole-body bone scan, the news confirmed her worst fears: Lung had stage 3C triple- negative breast cancer. The cancer had spread to nearby lymph nodes and was classified as a grade 3, meaning the cells “grew aggressively,” doctors said. She also tested positive for BRCA1 gene mutation, which puts her at greater risk of cancer reoccurring in her breast or ovaries during her lifetime.
She was in the care of dr. Virginia Borgeswho specializes in young women with breast cancer at the UCHealth Diane O’Connor Thompson Breast Center on the Medical Campus Anschutz in Aurora†
Borges and her team of health care providers outlined a treatment regimen, including drugs, radiation, and surgery to fight her cancer.
“We caught it in the nick of time. Still, it was scary,” Long said.
While on a summer vacation with Welsh to see her family in Northern Michigan, the couple decided to forget her illness for a few weeks while enjoying the splendor of the area’s natural beauty in a rented van.
Serious cancer treatments eased with virtual reality
After returning to Denver, Long began a grueling medical treatment that included two types of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, all of which left her nauseous, exhausted, and weak. Immunotherapy is sometimes used along with chemotherapy as a way to use a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer.
Her providers were encouraged, but the struggle took its toll. She lost her appetite, her signature energy, her beautiful dark hair. Her treatments were interrupted when she developed allergic reactions to the powerful drugs, and she ended up in the emergency room on more than one occasion with a low white blood cell count and a high fever.
As she neared the end of the necessary chemo treatments, she finally had to deal with one last enemy: Adriamycin. Nicknamed the “red devil” for its potency and cough syrup color, the drug has a well-deserved reputation for making patients nauseous. This latest series of chemo hit her harder than the last, even with the drugs the nurses gave her to reduce side effects.
“Not all chemo drugs are created equal,” said Shannon Tejchma, a chief nurse at the… UCHealth Lone Tree Infusion Center. “Adriamycin is a very effective drug, but unfortunately it can make patients feel very ill. That’s the last thing we want, especially when we have tools at our disposal to make a difference.”
That’s where Long’s virtual odyssey began.
“The idea behind using virtual reality is to completely distract patients, transform them and transfer them to another dimension: to the beach, to the forest or just to a place where their mind is in a different place, Tejchma said. “They can transition themselves to what they’re watching, instead of a nurse pushing chemo into their IV.”
VR technology calms patients
UCHealth has been providing virtual reality for the past four years to enhance the patient experience and improve overall health and wellness, said Nicole Caputo, UCHealth senior director, Experience Innovation.
Since then, UCHealth has delivered more than 17,000 experiences on everything from distraction therapy for patients receiving chemotherapy or other infusion drugs, to use by burn patients and by healthcare providers in wound care and preoperative treatment.
“We put this device on their heads and take them elsewhere,” Caputo said. “The technology is endless and there are so many opportunities for us to use it.”
For Long, the idea of using virtual reality to tame her anxiety prior to her chemo treatment was appealing. And when Tejchma handed her the glasses and with Welsh as her virtual driver, she was able to let go of the stress that had gripped her during previous times in the IV clinic.
“It seemed to distract her from her immediate fears and let her relax a bit during her procedure and infusion times,” Welsh said.
Reached the top again
Long’s subsequent surgery — a double mastectomy and removal of part of her left lymph node — brought her back to reality. But this time, the news was better than she could have imagined. The pathology report showed no sign of cancer in the removed tissue.
Now she balances her optimism with knowing what’s to come: monthly immunotherapy infusions until September, reconstructive surgery, and later this year, removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes due to the BRCA1 diagnosis. She will also likely be on a beta-blocker indefinitely due to the cumulative effect of drugs on her heart.
But Long is determined to become the person she was before she found the lump, before the chemo treatments, before the BRCA1 diagnosis, before the heart condition. Maybe even Lake than before. After all she is a Michigan State University graduated, where the mascot is the feisty Spartan warrior/athlete.
She has many fans who support her: family, friends and Welsh, who have stood by her side during the long struggle.
“To witness her spirit, struggle and determination was amazing to watch and be a part of – she is a miracle,” he said. “You have this treasure!”
And with her hair growing back just as thick and dark as before, she’s determined to return to the arena too, sooner or later if she has something to say.
She’s looking at a photo from last summer, when she smiled, surrounded by friends who climbed to the top of 14,265 feet with her. Difficult peak†
“I’m looking at this photo to remind myself how strong I was. I want to climb mountains again. I told my friends I’ll definitely be there next year.”