A new avenue: Visually impaired, blind women are being trained in detection of breast cancer


By Sheshu Babu*

Women are forging ahead in many new sectors which were hitherto considered male bastions. Adding to their achievements, the visually impaired and blind women are being trained in detection of breast cancer. In a unique initiative, the women in Delhi are being trained to detect breast cancer by medical tactile examination.

According to a report in the “Hindustan Times” by Kabir Singh Bhandari (October 14, 2018), the National Association for the Blind’s (NAB’s) Centre for Blind Women and Disability Studies, in collaboration with Discovering Hands, Germany, has started training for women so that they will be able to detect early signs of breast cancer.

The article, commemorating world sight day, quotes Shalini Khanna, Director of NAB:

“We were contacted by Discovering Hands, Germany, in 2015 and they told us about the programme where blind women through a manual check up can detect early signs of breast cancer. Along with Dr Kanchan Kaur, who is associate Director at the Breast Services in Mendata  Medicity, Gurgaon,  I went to Germany to thoroughly check this system since we had our doubts about it. However we realized that the blind women were conducting the examination in the same manner as medical professionals, but with more concentration and focus”. 

Explaining the procedure, Khanna says:

“There is a five day assessment period during we check certain skills that are imperative for them to be chosen for the course, and a lot of them do not succeed during this test. Also the women have to be over 18, and their age and maturity is an important criterion. After all, they are looking for a tumour! We coach them so that they’re comfortable about their own bodies and examining others. Breasts are something we don’t really talk about much in India. “


Medical Tactile Examiners (MTEs) assist doctors in detecting tumours leading to breast cancer. They use tactile strips with Braille markings on breast region that is divided into four parts — breasts, underarm area till rib region, back and neck region. If examination reveals a lump, braille markings can indicate exact points. MTEs jot down the findings on tactile graph for doctor.

Manual checks can detect lumps as small as 0.5 cms. Neha  Suri is among the first seven member batch of blind women to be trained for the job.(timesofindia,indiatimes.com, September 30, 2018). She is part of a pilot that seeks to make differently-abled inclusion real. Neha will be working with a team of doctors at Fortis hospital, Vasant Kunj ( Delhi) to encourage women undergo non- invasive preventive check-ups.

Trained MTEs use ‘optimal sensory touch’ which involves putting just enough pressure and releasing it with fingers that move from one centimeter to the other covering the entire breast region.

Dr  Frank Hoffman, German Gynecologist who was behind ‘ Discovering Hands ‘ project argues that because of their disability, blind possess more accurately developed sense of touch which has proved to be valuable asset in breast examination (Nick Wade and Joana  Krause- Palfner, “Blind women help detect breast cancer”, July 30, 2009, cnn.com). A study at the Essen University’s womens ‘s clinic Germany concluded that MTUs found more smaller tumours than doctors in 450 cases.

A new hope for visually disabled women

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in India. Its incidence is about 24 in 100,000  population. Early detection is key to cure of the dreaded disease. Shalini Khanna feels that MTEs can fill up the vacuum that currently exists in preventive check – up category.

The initiative to execute this innovative program in hospitals has been taken up by Dr  Mandeep Singh Malhotra,  head,Surgical Oncology, and his team of doctors at FLT, LT Rajan DhallFortis Hospital, Vasant Kunj. A lot of women come from background where being blind is unbearable to family. The family ignores them. Sweta Verna, one of the MTEs recounts her emotional journey and feels happy as she got work and her family talks to her. (newsapexs.com). Her message to blind individuals and parents is that they should be given support. There are many centers where the disabled can be enrolled for training and make their parents proud of their work.

*Writer from anywhere and everywhere supports independent living for differently-abled persons

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