BOGOTA – When Leidy completely lost her sight six years ago, she began to discover the power of her hands. Now she uses them to serve other women in a project that uses blind people’s acute sense of touch to detect breast cancer.
“Being an assistant tactile examiner (AET) is a different world, a challenge, where disability is an opportunity,” Leidy Garcia told EFE. She is one of the Colombian women working in the Hands that Save Lives project, the first of its kind in the Americas for the detection of breast cancer, the most common type in the region among women.
The project, promoted by the CAF-Development Bank of Latin America, is inspired by the German program Discovering Hands of Dr. Frank Hoffman, who found that the blind are better than anyone at performing tactile exams for breast cancer.
“Besides this disability, I can recognize the tissues and the different pathologies – I feel and identify them,” said Francia Papamija, totally blind from bilateral retinal detachment and who previously worked in a factory.
“They have a better developed sense of feeling, because of the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, and that talent permits them to find 28 percent more masses in glandular tissue, which are up to 50 percent smaller than medical personnel can find,” Stefan Wilhelm, coordinator of the project in the southwestern Colombian city of Cali for CAF and Discovering Hands.
The work is meticulous, he said, because the tactile assistants take between 30-45 minutes “compared to the two or three minutes that doctors take.”
In the session they use adhesive strips written in Braille that they stick vertically around the breast, forming “coordinates” to determine the location of abnormalities or bulges and in that way warn the doctor. “It’s like studying a map,” said Leidy, who has learned that “not all nodules are bad.”
Hands that Save Lives is now being applied in Argentina and in Mexico, where it is associated with the Veracruz Cancer Treatment Center and the state Health Secretariat, and “there is also interest in Spain,” said Ana Mercedes Botero, director of CAF Social Innovation.
According to the Pan American Health Organization, breast cancer causes the death of 92,000 women a year in the region, and if the current trend continues, the death toll will rise to 142,000 by 2030.