When Melissa Long arrived for her last chemo treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer, she took a deep breath, tried to stem her rising anxiety – then settled in for the ride of her life.
Or more precisely, the ride for her life.
The 47-year-old Aurora resident put on a pair of virtual reality (VR) goggles and with her partner Kevin Welsh by her side, she traveled around the world on a virtual tour that helped distract her from the tremendous dread she faced after a year’s culmination of difficult medical treatment.
While he manned a computer tablet “steering wheel” and selected various destinations, Long’s body never left the reclined padded seat on the third floor of the UCHealth Lone Tree Medical Center.
VR during cancer treatment
She traveled to the Antarctic, where a colony of playful penguins made her laugh; to a gurgling brook that elicited 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 chomped at her feet.
“I swear it immediately transported me to a better and happier place,” she said. “For me, it was just so cool. The virtual reality experience really took me there.”
This simulated ride gave her moments of much-needed respite and escape after a year of darkness and despair. A self-described Type A go-getter, she was more accustomed to spending her summers scaling the state’s14ers and her winters skiing.
“It’s been a real journey. But there have been some silver linings in my experience as well. I feel so blessed we landed at UCHealth and had an amazing team – they were phenomenal.”
Long is a strategic account manager for HOKA, an athletic company that makes running shoes designed especially for stability in difficult terrain. Her life has been tested in similar ways these past 16 months as she’s had to navigate through bumps, curves and low valleys before catching a glimpse of the mountains again.
Sidelined and blindsided by cancer
It was March 2021, and just as she was hoping that Covid-19 vaccines might bring some normalcy back to her daily life, Long felt a lump in her left breast. She had just turned 46 and because of her age and her healthy lifestyle, she hoped for the best. But she had reason for concern: Her paternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer at 47 and her paternal aunt, of breast cancer at 43.
After a series of tests that included mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, breast MRI’s, genetic testing, echocardiograms, a CT scan from neck to pelvis and a full body bone scan, the news confirmed her worst fears: Long had stage 3C triple negative breast cancer. The cancer had spread into nearby lymph nodes, and was classified as a grade 3, meaning the cells were “growing aggressively,” doctors said. She also tested positive for BRCA1 gene mutation giving her a greater risk for cancer to reoccur in her breast or ovaries during her lifetime.
She found herself under the care of Dr. Virginia Borges, who specializes in young women with breast cancer at the UCHealth Diane O’Connor Thompson Breast Center on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.
Borges and her team of caring 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.
During a summer trip with Welsh to see her family in Northern Michigan, the couple decided to forget about her illness for a few weeks as they enjoyed the splendor of the area’s natural beauty in a rented van.
Arduous cancer treatments eased with virtual reality
After returning to Denver, Long started a grueling medical regimen that included two types of chemotherapy as well as immunotherapy, all of which made 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 battle took a toll. She lost her appetite, her trademark energy, her lovely mane of dark hair. Her treatments were interrupted when she had allergic reactions to the powerful medications, and she wound up in the ER more than once with a low white blood count and battling high fevers.
Finally, as she was nearing the end of the necessary chemo treatments, she faced one final foe: Adriamycin. Nicknamed the “red devil” for its potency and cough-syrup color, the medicine has a well-deserved reputation for making patients nauseous. This last chemo series hit her harder than previous ones, even with the meds the nurses gave her to reduce side effects.
“Not all chemo drugs are created equal,” said Shannon Tejchma, a charge nurse at the UCHealth Lone Tree Infusion Center. “Adriamycin is a very effective drug but unfortunately, it can cause patients to feel really sick. That is the last thing we want, especially when we have tools available to make a difference.”
That’s where Long’s virutal odyssey began.
“The idea behind using virtual reality is to totally distract patients, transforming and transferring them into another dimension: to the beach, to the woods or just to a place where their mind is in another spot,” Tejchma said. “They can transition themselves into what they are watching, rather than a nurse pushing chemo into their IV.”
VR technology soothes patients
UCHealth has been offering virtual reality for the past four years to elevate patient experience and enhance overall health and wellness, said Nicole Caputo, UCHealth senior director, Experience Innovation.
Since then, UCHealth has delivered over 17,000 experiences on everything from distraction therapy for patients getting chemo or other infusion drugs, to being used for burn patients, and by providers in wound care and in pre-surgery.
“We put this device on their head and take them to someplace else,” 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 help tame her anxiety leading up to her chemo treatment was appealing. And when Tejchma handed her the goggles and with Welsh as her virtual driver, she was able to let go of the stress that had gripped her during previous times at the infusion clinic.
“It seemed to distract her from her immediate fears and let her relax a bit during her procedure and infusion times,” Welsh said.
Reaching the peak 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 tissue that was removed.
Now, she balances her optimism with knowing what’s still to come: monthly immunotherapy infusions through September, reconstructive surgery and later this year, removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes because of the BRCA1 diagnosis. She also will likely be on a beta blocker indefinitely because of the cumulative effect of medications 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 more than before. She is, after all, a Michigan State University graduate, where the mascot is the spunky Spartan warrior/athlete.
She’s got plenty of fans supporting her: family, friends and Welsh, who has been at her side during the long battle.
“To witness her spirit, fight and determination has been amazing to watch and be a part of – she’s a miracle,” he said. “You got this babe!”
And with her hair growing back as thick and dark as before, she’s determined to return to the arena as well, sooner rather than later if she has any say.
She looks at a photo from last summer, when she was smiling, surrounded by girlfriends who climbed with her to the top of 14,265-foot Quandary Peak.
“I look at this picture to remind myself of how strong I was. I want to climb mountains again. I told my girlfriends, next year I’ll be there for sure.’’