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Collaborative project creates a virtual world for cancer patients

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The pain and isolation of dealing with a cancer diagnosis are challenging emotional experiences for adults. Now imagine getting that diagnosis as an adolescent.

But a new collaborative effort initiated by Mette Hoybye, PhD, a visiting scholar at the Center on Stress and Health, and Henrik Bennetsen, chief executive officer and co-founder of Katalabs, aims to fuse cancer therapy with virtual worlds to provide a learning space for young cancer patients. The project, which is aimed at patients ages 13 to 24, is called BE Community.

Hoybye, whose work over the past ten years has focused on the use of social media in support of different health conditions, explains in an e-mail:

We are envisioning the BE community as a social learning space, where young patients can hang out and interact with others in a similar situation. We will provide structured learning interactions - in the form of games, videos, treatment and nutrition diaries, and visualization exercises - with the hope of improving young patients’ self-efficacy with respect to adhering to treatments and additionally with finding motivation to make good health behavior choices.

Aiming to be more than a Facebook for adolescent cancer patients, Hoybye emphasizes the potential to provide evidence for the clinical relevance of psycho-social interventions in cancer treatment:

Patients feel empowered by support resources they find online and experience a strong sense of emotionally beneficial recognition from interactions with similar others in shared patient spaces such as discussion fora or websites. We are also planning to collect various measures of treatment adherence, for example: appointment attendance, blood tests to observe adherence to chemotherapy regimens, and possibly cortisol levels to indicate stress level.

And, on the software side of the project, Bennetsen helped develop Sirikata, the platform on which BE Community will run. He explains:

To do this we leverage the ongoing research at Stanford Computer Science's Meru Virtual World Infrastructure Groupcoupled with emerging webtechnologies that allows us to deliver fullmultiuser3D spaces in a normal web browser without having to require the user to download or install any specialized software.

Image courtesy BE Community

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