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How AI is helping to make breast cancer history

Every October for the last four decades, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has helped to raise visibility of the most prevalent cancer on Earth — one that takes almost three-quarters of a million lives every year.

Despite recorded cases stretching back to ancient Egypt, breast cancer was considered an “unspeakable” condition for millennia. Women were expected to suffer in silence and “dignity.”

This stigma fueled academic ignorance, with breast cancer languishing as a relatively unstudied disease until just a few decades ago. For most of the last century, a woman suffering from breast cancer would be offered radiation therapy and/or surgery — often radical surgery, leaving them disfigured for little benefit — while the treatment of other cancers progressed.

Breast cancer mortality barely changed from the 1930s to the 1970s, until a concerted effort by feminist and women’s liberation groups elevated the study and treatment of breast cancer to its rightful position in heavily male-dominated hospitals and research institutions. Treatment transformed in a generation.

In the 1970s, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer had roughly a 40% chance of surviving the next 10 years. Today, that probability has almost doubled, thanks to new drugs, cutting-edge screening methods, and more subtle and effective surgery.

Crucial to this transformation has been an emphasis on early diagnosis. The earlier breast cancer is spotted, the easier it is to treat. Artificial intelligence is playing an increasingly critical role in identifying breast cancer. This year, Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) announced a study of how AI could screen for breast cancer. While intended to augment, not replace, human doctors, this would help to mitigate a shortage of radiographers — 2,000 more are needed to clear the NHS’ backlog in scans caused by the pandemic.

Startups are also using AI to tackle this shortage. Britain’s Kheiron Medical Technologies plans to use AI to screen half a million women for breast cancer. Spain’s the Blue Box is developing a device that can detect breast cancer from urine samples. India’s Niramai is working on a low-cost tool that could help screen large numbers of women in rural and semi-urban areas.


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