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Blind women trained to find breast cancer lumps by feel are better than doctors at the task

Published by SCMP

They are called medical tactile examiners, or MTEs, and they work in India, Mexico, Colombia, and Austria, using their sense of touch to find breast nodules. The women spend much longer than doctors on examinations, and can find smaller lumps; in India their detection rate is 100 per cent so far. Dressed in a pink uniform, Hasiba Rani starts her first consultation of the day at CK Birla Hospital for Women in Gurgaon outside the Indian capital, New Delhi. After noting the patient’s medical history, she spends 30 minutes on a physical examination. Rani is “looking” for lumps or nodules in the patient’s breasts, only she cannot see. She is blind, and relies on her sense of touch.

Starting with the lymph nodes in the neck, she moves down to the collar bone, underarms, and every single centimetre of the breasts. She is guided by adhesive strips marked in Braille to ensure she leaves no part untouched and to help her report to the doctor, if she finds a lump, its exact location.

Rani, 25, has a serene demeanour, a soft voice, and a quiet confidence. She is one of seven blind Indian women who have been trained as medical tactile examiners, or MTEs, a role created for women who are blind and have extra sensitivity in their fingertips, either from having learned Braille or simply from having developed a greater sense of touch to cope with their loss of vision.

This sensitivity is being harnessed for the early detection of abnormalities which could be indicative of breast cancer. Globally, more than two million women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, according to the World Health Organisation. According to a 2018 report by the Indian Council for Medical Research, 50 per cent of breast cancer patients visit a doctor only when their cancer is at stage three, and 15-20 per cent when it is at stage four, the highest stage, owing to the low level of screening.

If women are physically examined by a doctor, palpation usually lasts a couple of minutes at most. Doctors are too busy. In a flash of insight in 2006, gynaecologist Dr Frank Hoffman, based in Duisburg, Germany, wondered if a blind woman could do a more thorough job than doctors of detecting small lumps – crucial to catching breast cancer early.

Doctors usually find tumours of between 1cm and 2cm in diameter. Hoffman found that blind examiners could detect lumps of between 6mm and 8mm in diameter. The idea was worth exploring because cases of breast cancer in younger women are growing, but mammogram screening is provided only to women aged 50 or over in most countries; in India it is 45 and above. Younger women, though at risk, were effectively being left unscreened.