There’s a new voice in the chorus of encouragement for women to regularly check their breasts. Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service, can now talk its users through breast examinations, making it one of two exciting new tools being used by Breast Cancer Care to encourage women to check their breasts and find all the information they require about a breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and life afterwards.
Research has shown that one in three women fail to regularly check their breasts and even those who do so often look only for a lump, not realising there are other possible signs and symptoms of this cancer. As well as lumps, women should check for a change in the shape or size of the breast, a puckering or dimpling of the skin, a discharge from the nipples, change of nipple shape, redness or a rash on the skin or around the nipples, swelling in the armpits or collar bone area. At one time, feeling pain in the breast or armpit was not seen as a symptom of cancer, but certainly is today.
After taking you through a breast examination, Alexa will analyse your answers to questions devised by Breast Cancer Care, and then advise whether or not you should contact your GP. Alexa has a team-mate on this front, BECCA. Also known simply as the Breast Cancer Care App, BECCA is available on smart phones, tablets, and computers. It contains flashcards that cover all Breast Cancer Care’s traditional information and more recent innovations in care, like mindfulness meditation.
This is an important component of cancer care, because the process of adjusting to life after breast cancer can be a lonely one. Your treatment is over but you may be left with a myriad of questions and anxieties, with which you feel unable to burden your family, friends or GP. The app comes to the rescue with peer-led advice and support. It answers questions about the side-effects of treatment, about adopting a healthier lifestyle, and about making sense of the whole breast cancer experience, and it serves advice in a palatable daily format.
New factors constantly emerge as important in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Here, the internet plays a vital role in communicating these to a greater number of clinicians and public alike. Cheryl Cruwys, the co-founder of Breast Density Matters UK, was diagnosed with the disease in 2016. Her screening was conducted in France where, because she has dense breast tissue, she received a supplemental ultrasound that, unlike the mammogram, detected a tumour. Because the tumour was found early, she needed only minimal treatment. She has since helped to coordinate a comprehensive and up-to-date educational resource on the implications of dense tissue.
The UK does not offer these supplemental ultrasounds but, with a growing pool of clinical research providing substantial evidence that supplemental screening detects more cancers than mammography alone, the NHS needs to do so. A recent study of 200,000 women found that breast density is the most prevalent of all common risk factors including personal and family history of the disease.
The speed at which information can now be accessed is astonishing. I remember well when I first wrote about the work of Breast Cancer Care. I was amazed at the amount of information offered in its series of booklets presented in a hard-bound file. I still have my copy. This was sent out on request and contained everything that someone recently diagnosed, already in treatment or finding the way back to a life after breast cancer, might need. Updated booklets are still available from Breast Cancer Care for people for whom internet access is not possible.
Modern-day cancer patients are exerting increasingly large influence over their treatment, which means it is ever more crucial that they remain well informed and well looked-after. Tools like Alexa and BECCA will make sure that, as research evolves, people can find up-to-date information with ease. They’re simple to use and they give instant answers – and they’re much cheaper than those booklets.