Cancer in the Dark
What was the starting point of the Discovering Hands project?
F. H. : I have been a gynecologist since 1993. In my practice, in Duisberg (Germany), I have always focused on early detection of breast cancer. I wanted to make it more efficient, I was convinced that the examination I did on my patients wasn’t optimal. The threat is not the tumor, but the cells that metastasize throughout the body and affect the bones, the lungs, the liver or even the brain. Detecting and treating the tumor before it metastasizes considerably improves the chances of survival.
How can medical examination for breast cancer be improved?
F. H. : The best way to improve the tactile examination for breast cancer is to spend more time on it than the usual three minutes, and to hire people with a highly developed sense of touch. When I came to that conclusion, I figured it would be the ideal work for visually impaired individuals.
How did Discovering Hands start?
F. H. : When I had the idea of Discovering Hands, I started developing a program from 2006 to 2008, in cooperation with the BFW (a vocational training center for the visually impaired) in Düren. After two years of work, we were able to offer them quality instruction. Initially, it was just a test to know if they could be taught to become Medical Tactile Examiners (MTE) in nine months. After the success of the operation, we opened other training centers in Germany. At the end of 2010, we had four centers: Halle, Nuremberg, Düren and Mainz !
What does this method have that the traditional examination doesn’t?
F. H. : Early detection of breast cancer relies on three steps: physical examination, echography and radiology (mammography). Our objective wasn’t to replace one of them, but to optimize the physical examination. It is the first stone in a string of diagnoses. If the doctor has no suspicion at this stage, he won’t take additional action and a neglected tumor might then evolve into a metastasis, thus lessening the patient’s chances of survival. Honestly, I believe the usual physical examination is not viable, because we lack time during the observation. For every examination conducted by Discovering Hands, the MTE spends thirty to fifty minutes using their highly developed sense of touch. It makes a big difference.
How effective is this technique?
F. H. : Essen University completed research in 2008. They discovered that our MTE, thanks to the quality of their senses, can find tumors inside the breast as tiny as six to eight millimeters, versus one to two centimeters for doctors. It is very important, because a tumor that is a few millimeters in size hasn’t sent its cells throughout the body yet. The special skills of the visually impaired examiners are a gift for women affected by this pathology. They save lives.
Have you started to expand your project?
F. H. : Thanks to the Ashoka Globalizer program, which determines the best way to grow, this has become a reality. We have managed to set up our first franchise in Austria, with Syncon2 and SINN-STIFTER,3 and we now benefit from an international reach. We have already trained the first MTE in Columbia, in cooperation with the CAF (Development Bank of Latin America) and Mexico will be the next state to support the initiative. Another pilot project has started in India, financed by the CSR funds of a major pharmaceutical company. I am convinced that Discovering Hands can have a wider social impact in developing countries, where insurance systems are not always trustworthy and access to treatment is sometimes difficult.
What is your financial strategy?
F. H. : To guide themselves and to examine the breast in its entirety, the MTE use copyrighted orientation tapes. Each screening brings in additional funds to our company, since the tapes are sold by Discovering Hands. It is one of the strengths of our model. Since 2016, we have created our own training center, Discovering Hands Academy, in Berlin, and we have become a professional integration company, because we hire the visually impaired examiners that we train. They can also practice in medical offices or clinics. Thanks to this academy, we can recruit more and more MTE and provide them with a better social security. I hope that in ten years, they will be associated with breast cancer detection in the same way a midwife is with birth.
By Charlotte Sarrola
1. According to the American Cancer Society.
2. Austrian agency specialized in the development of franchises.
3. Group of Austrian philanthropic foundations.