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Blind women help detect breast cancer

  • Story Highlights
  • Blind women being trained to use their sensitive touch to detect breast cancer lumps
  • Called Medical Tactile Examiners, they can spend more time on patients
  • The 'Discovering Hands' program takes place at a school in Düren, west Germany
By Nick Wade and Joana Krause-Palfner
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Blind women are being trained to use their sensitive touch to help detect breast cancer earlier and more precisely than doctors.

Marie-Luise Voll, 57, trained as an MTU when she lost her sight and could no longer work as a nurse

The blind assistants use tape strips with braille coordinates to accurately locate cancerous lumps

The program, called "Discovering Hands," is the brainchild of German gynecologist Dr. Frank Hoffmann.

Two years ago, he created Braille strips as a system of orientation, allowing the blind to carry out breast examinations.

Using these strips blind women are trained to become Medical Tactile Examiners (MTUs) because they are more able to detect smaller lumps than sighted doctors.

Hoffman argues that because of their disability, the blind can possess a more acutely developed sense of touch, which has proved to be a valuable asset in breast examinations.

Once the strips are placed along specific areas of the breast, they are then used to report a precise location to the doctor as the MTU reads their Braille coordinates.

"We are turning a disability into a gift," Dr. Hoffmann told CNN.

"It's like the game Battleship," he added. "You have the exact location."

A study at the Essen University's women's clinic, Germany, concluded that MTUs found more and smaller tumors than doctors in 450 cases.

The identification of smaller lumps allows earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment.

Another advantage of having MTUs is that they are able to dedicate more time to examining a patient.

Dr. Hoffman said he had previously been able to spend only a few minutes on each examination due to his other commitments, whereas MTUs can commit half an hour.

Training takes place at the BFW occupational school in Düren, west Germany, a center for those who are no longer able to continue their profession because of visual impairment or blindness.

So far, ten blind women have qualified as MTUs. One of the women, Marie-Luise Voll, 57, told CNN: " The work brings me a lot of joy."

Voll had previously practiced as a nurse before losing her sight in 2007, but used the experience when training at Düren for her new role.

The highly personal nature of the procedure means that only women will be trained. The MTUs report to the doctor - for whom they act as an assistant not a replacement - who then uses this information as part of their ultimate diagnosis.

If an abnormality is located the doctor will decide how to proceed, with ultrasounds and mammography being the most frequent course of action.

The testing phase of the project between 2006 and 2008 has now been completed in Germany. The hope is that twenty trained MTUs will qualify every year after 2010.

The program has been acclaimed as a success by both patients and practitioners in Germany.

Health services in Europe including Ireland, France, Denmark and Austria have also registered interest in starting an equivalent of their own, Hoffman said.

All About Breast Cancer

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