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World Sight Day: How blind women are being trained to detect breast cancer

On the occasion of World Sight Day, we tell you how blind women go through a nine month programme where they learn about breast examination, spotting cancers and tumours.
In a unique initiative to battle breast cancer in India, blind women are being trained in Delhi to be able to detect early signs of breast cancer. The National Association for Blind (NAB) Centre for Blind Women and Disability Studies, in collaboration with Discovering Hands, Germany has launched medical tactile examination training in India.
“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 the associate director at the Breast Services in Medanta 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,” said Shalini Khanna, Director of NAB.
Students at NAB undergoing training. (Athar Rather/HT Photo)
“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’re 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,” explains Khanna.
There is a nine month programme where the women are trained in breast examination, spotting cancers and tumours. But an important question is what the experience was like for the women who take this course and go on to become examiners?
Hasiba Rani, a Medical Tactile Examiner at NAB, shared her experience with us.
“My vision kept diminishing and by the time I finished graduation I was blind. Knowing nothing about blindness and also doing nothing at home I had slipped into depression. Then I found out about NAB and after taking admission started learning various vocations. In 2017 I started learning about the Discovering Hands programme,” said Hasiba.
The initiative to execute this innovative program in hospitals has been taken by Dr Mandeep Singh Malhotra, Head, Surgical Oncology, and his team of doctors at FLT. LT Rajan Dhall Fortis Hospital, Vasant Kunj.
A lot of the women come from backgrounds where being blind meant that their family would ignore them and thought they would amount to no good, which was the case with Shweta Varma, who is also a Medical Tactile Examiner. She gets emotional while talking to us about her journey and starts crying.
“Before I got work here, my family used to think that it’s best to keep me at home because of the way I look and my sight problem. But today I am very happy. Now even my family talks to me and they are proud that I am staying and working in a place like Delhi in a hospital,” said Shweta.
And what would be her message to blind individuals and their parents?
“All I would like to tell the parents of blind people are that do not ignore them and give them support; they will certainly make you proud in the future. And if you are blind and your family does not support you, there are many such centers where you can enrol yourself and learn to support yourself. Do not get disappointed, we aren’t lesser than anyone else and can do a lot,” says Shweta, with confidence.

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