Spongebob, Barbie, and Disney princesses are helping doctors cut back on the amount of anesthesia required to prep young cancer patients for lifesaving therapy, according to a study due to be presented at the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology in Vienna. Researchers say the movies, projected on the inside of each young patient’s radiotherapy machine, calm children so effectively that many kids no longer need general anesthesia to help them remain motionless as the machine fires X-rays at their cancer cells.
“Radiotherapy can be very scary for children. It’s a big machine in a huge room, with a lot of accessories they don’t recognize, and their parents can’t be by their sides,” coauthor Catia Aguas, a radiation therapist at the Cliniques Universitaires Saint Luc in Brussels, told Fatherly. “With a movie, most of the time the children are hypnotized during the whole thing. Sometimes they don’t even want to leave, because they want to keep watching the movie.”
This is not the first time we’ve seen fun, decidedly non-pharmaceutical, alternatives to sedating children. In 2016, research presented at the World Congress of Anesthesiologists suggested that iPads could calm children before surgery as effectively as conventional sedatives.
This is, however, the first study to demonstrate that distraction can curb radiology’s reliance on general anesthesia for calming kids. An estimated 34,000 children under 15 worldwide require radiation therapy to manage their brain tumors, bone cancers, and soft tissue sarcomas every year. In the vast majority of cases, general anesthesia is necessary just to help them sit still. But if radiologists can get the same results by putting on a Disney film, no anesthesia is necessary.
“There are always side effects to anesthesia, especially because [when used to treat cancer] it’s really 20-30 days in a row almost non-stop,” Aguas says. “We can avoid all side effects.”
Aguas and colleagues started projecting movies, chosen by the children, into their radiotherapy machines in 2014. Since then they have only tested the method on six children—a sample size far too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. But Aguas hopes that other radiology experts will make use of her technique on a larger scale, perhaps even helping claustrophobic and anxious adults calm down before stepping into the tight quarters of a radiotherapy machine.
Regardless, the advantages of Disney over Diazepam could be far-reaching, even for healthcare professionals. “With anesthesia the treatment can last for up to an hour and a half and without anesthesia it last more like ten or twenty minutes,” Aguas says. “It’s less stressful for everyone.”