On 26th September 2014, I was given the unexpected, life-changing and terrifying news that I had grade three breast cancer. At the age of 26, rapidly dividing cells within my body had betrayed me, attempting a nightmarish mutiny in a dastardly bid to take control. However, unlike a nightmare, this was very much real — and I was only just lucky enough to spot the invader before it had raided the whole place and planted a flag in the ground.
Although these mutineers were very small, they were also very aggressive. This meant that I had to endure two painful surgeries, six gruelling rounds of chemotherapy and 20 exhausting rounds of radiotherapy in order to turf out the little thugs. Although the “active treatment” was over, I will still be given monthly injections for five years and will take tablets every day for 10 years. This is purely to avoid any stowaways from thinking about making a resurrection.
Five years on, to the day, I am very lucky to be able to say that I was able to crush this rebellion, and every year I make a point of celebrating what I call my “cancerversary”. The experience has made me particularly curious about the technologies being developed to make what happened to me a thing of the past. Here’s a roundup of just some of the ways that tech could be used to turn cancer into a manageable, or even a curable disease in the future.
Predicting the future
At the end of last year, researchers were able to train a computer programme to diagnose two of the most common types of lung cancer with 97% accuracy. By analysing tissue samples on slides, the same AI (artificial intelligence) programme could detect cancer-related genetic mutations in the samples.
Researchers who specialise in machine learning used a deep-learning method originally developed by Google where AI teaches itself to get better at the task of classifying lung cancer specimens to a high level of accuracy and in a matter of seconds.
Rather than being seen as a scary tool that might take away important jobs, I see this tool as something that could help scientists focus on other vital aspects of research. If this technology can be expanded into different types of cancer to make quick and accurate diagnoses, it’s working towards the common goal of helping to save lives.
The ongoing merging of wearables into healthcare is also providing hope for earlier detection of certain cancers, with IoT getting in on the action and joining the fight. For example, Cyrcadia Health has developed components for a ‘smart bra’ that uses predictive analytics and machine learning to analyse abnormal tissue patterns that could indicate early signs of breast cancer. This information can then be sent to a healthcare provider to ensure the wearer is seen by a professional. Earlier detection means better chances of survival, which is something worth striving for.
Another recent study was done into wearables improving the life quality and fitness levels of people post-breast cancer treatment. Many of those who go through breast cancer spend several hours a day sitting — whether it’s during an anxious wait before an appointment, recovering from surgery or due to the extreme fatigue that comes as an unwanted side effect of many of the treatments. The findings of this study and others like it could help these individuals quite literally get back on their feet.
Developed by Imperial College London, an intelligent surgical knife called the iKnife was developed a few years ago to help surgeons identify tumours in real time. An electrical current heats tissue to make incisions with minimal blood loss while analysing chemicals in the biological sample via a mass spectrometer. This helps surgeries become shorter, safer and more accurate.
In more recent news, Samsung and South Korean telephone company, KT, have collaborated to install a 5G network at a medical centre in Seoul. This innovation will help staff communicate and treat patients more quickly and efficiently. If this technology is successful, it will be rolled out across more hospitals and has the potential to improve not just cancer survival and treatment, but to save lives across the board.
Looking to the future
Nothing can prepare you for the words “you have cancer”. Treatment is a long-term commitment and, five years on, mine is still ongoing. As much as I see this as a positive thing, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dread my annual follow-up appointments, bemoan my ongoing side effects or wince every time I have to endure a giant needle.
With this in mind, any developments in healthtech that can help predict, prevent or even cure this disease or make life easier for the people who have been unfortunate enough to experience it are worth knowing about and celebrating. So tonight, I’ll be raising a glass to both my own ‘cancerversay’ and to the technologies being developed to help other people from never having to have one in the first place.