Centimeter by centimeter, Filiz Demir examines the breasts of her patients for irregularities. She and many other blind and visually impaired women work in breast cancer screening as medical tactile examiners. The Bayer Cares Foundation is supporting the successful project launched by the organization “Discovering Hands” and is helping to expand it to South America and India.
Filiz Demir looks after her hands, you can see that. Pale and delicate as these hands may appear, they are Filiz Demir’s most important work materials. They are her eyes - very special eyes. She uses them to see things that other people cannot perceive. “My disability has taught me how to experience the world around me by touch,” she says. “My hands are like sensors.”
Filiz Demir is blind. But that is not a handicap for her job – it’s a plus point. The 40-year-old works as a medical tactile examiner (MTE) at a gynecological practice in Duisburg, Germany. Every day, she examines the breasts of patients for abnormal knots or lumps. She is helped by her extraordinary sense of touch. “I can feel even the smallest of irregularities in the tissue,” she explains. “My sense of touch was much less sensitive back when I could still see.” A few years ago, she lost the remainder of her already very weak vision, which led to her other senses becoming more acute. “When I became aware of the opportunity to qualify as a medical tactile examiner in the internet, I immediately registered for a training course.”
Professional tactile examination substantially increases the likelihood of identifying breast cancer while it is still at an early stage.
Filiz Demir works in a completely new profession. Her boss Dr. Frank Hoffmann only developed the qualification for blind and sight-impaired women a few years ago. Hoffmann, a gynecologist, felt that the standard of the tactile examination offered by his practice was inadequate and decided to look for a solution to the problem. “I quite simply don’t have the feeling I need in my fingertips to carry out a really good check-up examination,” he says. “And my daily work in the practice is far too stressful to allow me to take the requisite care.”
This is a problem that many gynecologists around the world are familiar with and which, in isolated cases, can have fatal consequences. The sooner breast cancer is detected, the better the therapeutic options are. “An early diagnosis can be life-saving,” explains Hoffmann. “And professional tactile examination substantially increases the likelihood of identifying breast cancer while it is still at an early stage.” After coming up with his idea of using blind and sight-impaired women with their extremely sensitive sense of touch as examiners for cancer screening, he wasted no time before establishing the charitable organization “Discovering Hands” and designing a systematic examination method and a 9-month training course. The first women signed up soon after.
is the sum of the support from the Bayer Cares Foundation for a planned MTE center in India
The organization has since trained more than 20 MTEs for practices and hospitals throughout Germany and now plans to expand the system to South America and India. It is being supported in its work by the Bayer Cares Foundation, which has been working together with “Discovering Hands” since 2014. “A particularly pleasing aspect of this project is that it turns an impairment into a talent, and so opens up completely new possibilities for people,” says Foundation Managing Director Thimo V. Schmitt-Lord. “It also meets a need in the health care system, and these are precisely the ideas we support.” The Bayer Cares Foundation will therefore support a planned MTE center in India over the next three years with funding of EUR 600,000 in total.
The first Colombian women learned Hoffmann’s tactile procedure for breast cancer screening at the Berufsförderungswerk in Düren, Germany, a few months ago. These three women will now train blind Colombian women in their home country. The training was financed by the Development Bank of Colombia, which also plans to expand the pilot project to other countries in South America if it is successful.
Claudia Ruiz is one of the trainers from Colombia. The 32-year-old is now training blind women in South America as medical tactile examiners. She prepared for this task in Düren by practicing for weeks on a plastic dummy. The procedure for the tactile examination is very precisely defined to ensure that every centimeter of the chest region from one armpit to the other is covered. The examiners use adhesive tape with symbols in braille as an orientation guide. “The examination is really not easy, because you have to cover all the layers of tissue, applying differing levels of pressure,” explains Claudia Ruiz.
Filiz Demir’s fingers move over the patient’s breast like autonomous, sentient beings. She carefully palpitates each centimeter of skin. “I really have to concentrate when I’m working so that I don’t miss anything.” She therefore cannot manage more than five patients per day, allowing herself roughly an hour for each patient. For Hoffmann, this kind of intensive support would be inconceivable. “No gynecologist can afford the time for that.” No wonder, then, that Filiz Demir is constantly booked out.