• Monday, September 25, 2023

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Touching lives: How blind women in India are detecting breast cancer

By: Kimberly Rodrigues

Visually impaired women are playing a vital role in detecting breast cancer through a groundbreaking training programme in India known as Medical Tactile Examiners (MTEs).

One such individual is Ritika Maurya, a 23-year-old trainee MTE at Enable India, a disability rights organisation in Bengaluru.

Despite facing limited mobility due to her blindness during her upbringing, Maurya now embraces her exceptional ability to use touch to identify breast lumps or changes that may indicate cancer, bringing reassurance to anxious women, The Guardian reported.

The method, developed by German gynecologist Dr Frank Hoffmann through his social enterprise called Discovering Hands, was introduced in India in 2017 and has since expanded to other countries.

During examinations, visually impaired MTEs employ braille-marked documentation tapes to meticulously measure each centimeter of the breast.

These thorough examinations, lasting 30-40 minutes, enable the MTEs to detect even the smallest lumps, as small as 6-8mm, surpassing the capabilities of sighted physicians who typically identify larger lumps ranging from 10-20mm.

The findings from these examinations are then shared with doctors who determine the need for further assessments.

Studies conducted by the NAB India Centre for Blind Women and Disability Studies in Delhi have shown promising results.

Tactile examinations performed by MTEs detected 78% of malignant cancers, with only a 1% miss rate.

Additionally, a 2019 study highlighted the comparable accuracy of examinations conducted by visually impaired MTEs to those carried out by physicians or a combination of both.

Enable India, founded by Shanti Raghavan, has expanded the MTE training to Bengaluru with the objective of making breast cancer screening accessible in every village across India.

Currently, there are 18 trained MTEs in Bengaluru and Delhi, with six employed in cancer hospitals. The programme continues to graduate new trainees, and plans are underway to select the next group of MTEs.

Breast cancer poses a significant health challenge globally and is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in India.

Late-stage diagnoses and a lack of awareness contribute to reduced survival rates.

MTEs serve as a valuable tool in combating this issue, offering routine breast cancer screenings in rural and urban communities where mammograms and ultrasound machines may not be readily available.

The involvement of MTEs in urban and rural communities, as well as workplaces, can have a significant impact, particularly in the absence of comprehensive government-run screening programmes.

For Maurya, her visual impairment enhances her tactile abilities, making her an ideal candidate for the role of an MTE. She highlights that women feel more comfortable undressing in the presence of a blind examiner.

With an estimated 15 million visually impaired women in India, of whom only a small percentage have employment opportunities, initiatives like the MTE programme offer a rare chance for individuals like Maurya to showcase their abilities and make meaningful contributions to society.

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