What happened when we tried the latest breast checking tool

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
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This groundbreaking feature could save your life

We are all well versed in the importance of regularly checking our breasts. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK, accounting for almost a third (31%) of new female cancer cases every year. In 2015 alone, 55,122 people were diagnosed with it.

But while we are all aware that we should be checking our breasts, what exactly is that check supposed to involve?

Aside from the presence of lumps, there are seven common signs of breast cancer to look out for, including symptoms such as a rash, a nipple inversion or a change in shape and size. And while written instructions or picture guides can be helpful (this guide, based on photographs of lemons, went viral on publication) it can sometimes be confusing to know when something is a cause for concern.

And this was the thinking behind a groundbreaking new breast checking tool, launched today by Breast Cancer Care. The tool is a spoken tutorial designed to be used as a skill on Amazon Alexa, meaning users can simply ask Alexa to guide them through their breast check, rather than having to rely on reading instructions as they go. The tutorial also comes complete with illustrated diagrams that show up on your phone, to help explain what you’re looking for even further.

“We know that a third of women aren’t confident in regularly checking their breasts,” David Hunt, head of digital at Breast Cancer Care, tells Stylist. “We wanted to develop a way to build the check into their daily lives.”

Hunt, who coded the tutorial over a couple of weeks, says that as Alexa is hands-free, the check is easier than ever to perform. “Plus, if it gets more women checking their breasts regularly, then that is no bad thing,” he adds.

So what is it like to do a breast check using the tutorial? Here, four members of the Stylist team give it a try, and offer their honest feedback…

“This is the first time I’ve properly checked my breasts”

“This is a new experience for me on many levels: not only have I never interacted with a virtual assistant like Alexa before, this is also the first time I’ve properly checked my breasts. Ever. I’m not sure why I’ve been so slack on the keeping-an-eye-out-for-breast-cancer front - possibly because the process has always felt a bit hazy and scary to me, but also because at 26, I still feel relatively young. Like filing my tax return and taking things to the dry cleaners’, breast-checking seems like a Serious Adult Task that I want to put off for as long as possible.

But as it turns out, checking your breasts is actually extremely easy. Alexa calmly talks me through the various steps, instructing me to look for any changes in the feel of my flesh, the texture of my skin, the appearance of my nipples and so on. Once you’ve done one step, you simply say ‘yes’ to move on.

Some of Alexa’s directions could do with a little more explanation: I find it useful when she tells me to watch out for skin that’s dimpled like the surface of an orange, but not all of her advice is so descriptive. 

Overall, having someone talk me through the process - especially a virtual someone who’s not actually there, and has no concept of awkwardness - is incredibly helpful. Now I just have to tackle that tax return.” 

- Moya Crockett, digital women’s editor

“It would be useful to have more information on the actual technique”

Melons as breasts
Our dissatisfaction with our breast size is making us less likely to practice breast self-examination

“After having found lumps in the past (all benign cysts, luckily!) I check my breasts regularly, so am familiar with the process. It was great to be reminded about what changes I should be looking out for, but I think it would be useful to have more information on the actual technique of how to do it, such as to use the flat part of your fingers rather than the tips (if you poke around with your fingertips, you’re more likely to find totally normal but alarming lumps and bumps). Also, it would be great if Alexa prompted you to do a monthly check so you don’t just do it once and then forget all about it.

But in general, anything that encourages women to look after their health can only be a good thing.”

- Sonya Barber, acting digital editor

“The whole thing only takes about five minutes”

“I think the creation of a tool that talks you through checking your breasts is a really positive move. Too many of us ignore that little voice in the back of our heads that reminds us we should check our breasts more regularly (or at all), because we’re scared we’ll find something, or we think cancer is something that just won’t happen to us. But making this a feature of Alexa is a step towards ingraining checks into our general routines, while raising awareness and contributing to our education of what the checks should involve. 

Alexa walks you through Breast Cancer Care’s eight steps, including checking for any redness or rashes, a change in shape or size, swelling under the armpits or liquid oozing from the nipples. The instructions are really clear, and the whole thing only takes about five minutes. 

My criticism would be that the tool needs to make it clear you need to be in front of a mirror, and to give more direction about how you should be checking. If someone feels uncomfortable checking their breasts they made need a helping hand (excuse the pun). For example, explaining what part of your hand you should be using to check, as the lengths of your fingers and palm are better than the pads of your finger tips, or that lifting your arm in the air is the best way to check the underneath of your boob.”

- Megan Murray, digital writer

“It’s a simple way to incorporate something so important into our daily routines”

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the tool – I’ve never used an Alexa before, so this was quite an intimate introduction to the technology. But once I’d gotten over my initial awkwardness, I found the instructions really clear and easy to follow, especially with the accompanying diagrams flashing up on my phone. 

I do think there’s room for improvement in the messaging used, as some of the information can be a little thin on the ground at times – for example, breasts are naturally quite lumpy, so it would be good to be told exactly what sort of lump would be a cause for concern, such as a specific size or feel. But I think the idea on the whole is great, and such a simple way to incorporate something so important into our daily routines.”

- Sarah Biddlecombe, digital commissioning editor

Taking care of your breasts and the BECCA Daily 5 are now available as an Amazon Alexa skill. Search for ‘Breast Cancer Care’ in the Alexa Skills section of the Alexa app or Amazon website.

If you, or anyone you know, wants information or support, you can contact the Breast Cancer Care helpline on 0808 800 6000.

Images: Getty, Unsplash, courtesy of Breast Cancer Care


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter

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