Breast Cancer Awareness Month, held every October for the past four decades, has helped increase awareness of the world's most common cancer; one that claims almost three-quarters of a million lives each year.
Despite documented instances dating back to ancient Egypt, breast cancer was an "unspeakable" disease for millennia. Yet, women were supposed to suffer silently and with "decency."
This stigma fostered educational ignorance, with this cancer being a largely unstudied illness until recent decades.
For most of the past century, women diagnosed with breast cancer underwent radiation therapy or surgery. Often, this painful surgery leaves them scarred for little benefit.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, breast cancer mortality barely changed Until a concerted push by feminist and women's liberation groups. This group elevated the study and treatment of this cancer to its proper place in primarily male-dominated hospitals and research institutions.
Treatment transformed in a generation.
Breast cancer patients diagnosed in the 1970s have a reduced chance of surviving over the next ten years. However, that chance has risen dramatically thanks to new drugs, cutting-edge screening techniques, and more subtle and effective surgery.
A focus on early diagnosis has aided this transformation. The earlier it is detected, the easier it is to treat. In addition, artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly essential in breast cancer detection.
The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK said earlier this year that it would research how to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to test for breast cancer.
Since technology is supposed to supplement, not replace, human doctors, it would alleviate a radiographer shortage - 2,000 more are needed to clear the NHS' scan backlog generated by the Lockdown.
To fill the gap, startups are resorting to artificial intelligence (AI). The UK-based Kheiron Medical Technologies hopes to use artificial intelligence to screen half a million women for breast cancer. The Spanish company Blue Box is developing a device that could test breast cancer with urine samples.
‘Niramai is developing a low-cost technique, that might be used to screen vast groups of women in rural and semi-urban regions.
Using AI to Identify Relapsying Patients
But equally crucial to improving outcomes in identifying patients at high risk of relapsing. Around one in 10 breast cancer patients will relapse after their initial treatment, decreasing their chance of survival.
Identifying them quick has historically been difficult, but my team, working with Gustave Roussy, a French cancer hospital, has developed an AI tool that can spot 8 in 10 patients at high risk of relapsing. AI helps get patients the treatment they need earlier on while also sparing lower-risk patients from frequent, unsettling checkups.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies accelerate breast cancer drug trials by recruiting high-risk patients faster.
Patient data privacy can be an understandable roadblock to rapid research. Hospitals are cautious about sending data off-site, and no pharmaceutical company wants to share valuable data with competitors.’
The Importance Of AI To Curb Breast Cancer
But AI is helping to solve these issues, allowing for the quicker, safer and cheaper development of new treatments.
Federated learning, a novel form of AI that trains on data from multiple institutions without the data leaving the hospitals, is being used across Europe to give researchers access to essential yet previously inaccessible data.
‘We will also use AI to deepen our understanding of why the most aggressive forms of breast cancer are resistant to certain drugs, helping us develop new, tailored drugs that discriminate between healthy and tumour cells better than chemotherapy.
While AI's influence is increasing, equally crucial to improving outcomes is recognising that healthcare is a fundamentally human endeavour. No algorithm could ever comfort a patient in their darkest moments, and no machine could ever instil and inspire the resilience that every patient needs to beat their disease.
Every other doctor and I know that treating disease is as much about understanding the patient as it is about understanding their affliction. Clinician empathy is related to higher patient satisfaction and lower distress, motivating a patient to continue a challenging course of treatment’
Thankfully, the AI technology increasingly helping breast cancer treatment has structures that help to augment and empower doctors.
It is no longer "unspeakable" for the millions of women diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Instead, the sea of pink ribbons that signifies the start of October represents how far we've gone in our battle against one of our oldest foes, one that we're finally defeating.
Breast cancer may never be completely eradicated. However, with AI assisting in the earlier diagnosis of patients and enabling the rapid development of cures, it's feasible that we won't need a Breast Cancer Awareness Month in a few decades.