Breast Cancer – How Blind People Use Their Enhanced Tactile Sensitivity to Save the Lives Of Women With Tumours: Each year in Germany doctors diagnose 70,000 cases of breast cancer and 17000 women die annually a result of this illness. If discovered early most cases of breast cancer are treatable. The following report describes how blind people are using their highly developed sense of touch to identify tissue changes and help accelerate the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.
This week I would like to share with you another fascinating article that I discovered today in the German language press. If you are new to my Alpine Press site let me explain. One of my passions is to translate interesting news originating in the non English speaking press and share it with a wider international audience. Today I discovered a story about how blind people are turning their highly developed tactile senses to help save the lives of German women who have breast cancer.
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About eight years ago the idea came to gynaecologist, Frank Hoffmann, in the German town of Duisberg, while he was taking his daily shower. In his work as a doctor he had a problem. The structure of the German health insurance system only allowed him three or four minutes to inspect the breasts of his female patients. However he was concerned that this limited amount of time was insufficient to comprehensively identify the lumps and nodules which are typical signs that a patient has breast cancer.
Hoffman’s idea was to try and harness the highly developed tactile senses of blind women to help in the identification of potentially carcinogenic growths in the breasts of female patients. With the help of a friend he was able to identify a number of local blind ladies who because of their visual impairment were unemployed and, not surprisingly, pretty depressed about their predicament. He founded the organisation “Discovering Hands” with the aim of training blind women as Palpation (or Touch) Examiners (my translation from the German ‘Tastuntersucherinnin‘).
Local authorities, including the Body for Vocational Advancement (Berufsförderungswerk), the Ministry of Health and the Regional Medical Association, were fully supportive of Hoffman’s idea and official examination’s were put in place for the qualification of Palpation Examiner. This meant, for example, that blind students could formally learn about the relationship between the lymph nodes and the breasts, and understand what scirrhous carcinoma’s, fibroids and cysts are. They also learn important ‘professional’ skills required by medical carers such as managing their facial expressions in front of a patient when they discover what they believe to be a growth.
Dr Hoffman believes it is important for carers and patients to understand that the discovery of a potential growth in a breast should not be treated as a death sentence. The critical success factor when treating breast cancer is how early the discovery is made: “If a tumour is identified before it becomes malignant the chance of successful treatment is over 90%“. He has been amazed by the level of sensitivity and accuracy demonstrated by the blind Palpation Examiners – often they identify an ‘occurrence’ on a patient’s breast that he himself is unable to find. These occurrences are then usually proven to be correct with an ultra-scan examination.
Generally in a routine examination a doctor will be able to identify tumours that are greater than 1.5-2.0 cm in diameter. The blind Palpation Examiners can typically find lumps as small as 0.6-0.8 cm in diameter. This leads to a quicker confirmation of the presence of a tumour and therefore a greater chance for the patient to receive successful therapy. These visually impaired ladies are playing a key role in saving patient’s lives.
A typical Palpation Examination of the breast area by one of these qualified blind carers takes about 50 minutes. Before each session the examiner attaches patented orientation strips which have text written on them in Braille. These strips divide the breast into defined areas which help the blind palpation examiner to document the precise location of any tissue changes she identifies. This provides the doctor with a clear diagram illustrating the areas requiring more detailed medical investigation.
The palpation examiners are not allowed to provide a diagnosis. This can only be given by a qualified doctor. When asked – these examiners are clear they do not identify cancer or tumours in their patients they simply are looking for changes in the tissue composition. Such changes may be lumps or nodules. It is these changes which, following further professional medical investigation, may be confirmed to be cancerous. However their key role as part of the early warning system for this killer illness should not be underestimated. These ladies, themselves, have severe personal sensory impairments but these very impairments have allowed them to develop their other senses to such a degree that they are now able to give the gift of health and life to others.
Chris Duggleby started his scientific career studying Bacteriology, Virology and Immunology at the Manchester University Medical School. From there he went on to spend over 35 in the chemicals and oil industries which included setting up a polymers research and development group in Geneva, Switzerland for a major international chemicals company. Following an MBA from Warwick University he went on to lead a number of international manufacturing and marketing operations in the Chemicals, Plastics and Oil industries. This included being the founding President of Formosa BP Chemicals Corporation in Asia. His work involved living and working in Europe, Asia, the USA, the Middle East, and Russia. More recently he was invited to take on a senior leadership position in the Audit Department of the BP International Oil Group. Here he used his global change and risk management experience to help the group reshape its management structures and processes following a major environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He has now retired to focus on writing about risk management and producing music in his studios near London, in the Alps and Cape Town. If you are interested in risk management check out his RiskTuition.com or BizChangers.com (management of change) sites. He has also recently launched the JointVentureRisk.com site.
If you found this article interesting please consider taking a look at some of his other recent reports on similar subjects.
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