Paralysed woman inspires mammogram robot

A woman who is paralysed from the chest down is helping scientists in York develop a robot so people with mobility issues can receive breast screening.

Jane Hudson, 53, from Harrogate, was unable to get an accurate mammogram because she could not get into the right position for the X-ray machine. She was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months later.

Scientists at the University of York have now started working on a prototype robotic arm system which will support the patient's upper body weight.

Ms Hudson said: "I've faced many difficulties and challenges in the wheelchair and you do sometimes feel like you don't get listened to, so for something positive to come out of this is great."

'I felt really humiliated'

Breast screening uses a test called mammography which involves taking X-rays of the breasts.

Screening can help to find breast cancers early when they are too small to see or feel.

Ms Hudson was invited for a mammogram at York Hospital because it was accessible but she was unable to position herself correctly in the machine for an X-ray to take place.

She said: "I did feel really humiliated. It takes a lot to upset me and I did feel very upset when I left the hospital that day because I just felt this is a regular screening for any woman and yet again a disability is stopping that from happening."

A few months later Jane was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer which had spread to her lymph nodes.

"That's when I started thinking if this had been picked up earlier maybe it wouldn't have spread," she said.

She contacted Dr Roisin Bradley, a consultant radiologist at York and Scarborough NHS Trust who is the Director of Breast Screening for North Yorkshire, to complain about the lack of accessibility for breast screening.

Dr Bradley said: "Jane's passion stuck with me and I felt there must be something that we can do to make mammography more accessible."

She found out about the work that Dr Jihong Zhu was carrying out in the Robot Assisted Living Lab in the Institute for Safe Autonomy at the University of York and asked if he could help.

Dr Zhu, who had previously developed assistive dressing robots for use in social care, visited the hospital to observe the breast screening process and then set to work.

He said: "My hope is that my robot can help people, that's the ultimate goal of my lab. When Roisin came to me with this problem, that's what I would like my robot to do so I got really excited about this."

The robot takes the weight of the patient and adjusts their body into the right position for the X-ray to be taken.

It would benefit people with paralysis, people who have had strokes, those with limited upper body strength and people with severe disabilities.

Dr Zhu said he hoped his robot would be fully functional and safety-checked within the next three years.

Dr Bradley said: "For the severely disabled that haven't been able to get any mammograms, there's also a cohort of women that have got mammograms but they're just not quite as good as they could have been because of their physical difficulties so hopefully we'll be able to get better screening tests for them."

Ms Hudson said: "This new project has the potential to change the future of screening and offers a lot of hope for people with paralysis like mine.

"I am delighted to be part of the project to help develop the robot."

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