Breast cancer breakthroughs as scientists develop AI tools that can predict treatment side effects AND spot tiny signs of disease that human doctors miss

  • Doctors created AI that predicts which breast cancer patients will get swelling
  • AI tool identified tiny signs of cancer in 11 women that were missed by doctors

By Rebecca Whittaker

Published: | Updated:

New AI tools can catch breast cancer early and predict which patients are more at risk of treatment side effects. 

The duo of breakthroughs offer hope for the 55,000 British women diagnosed with the disease every year.  

One of the tools, being tested in the UK, France and the Netherlands, opens up the door to giving patients more personalised treatment.  

It can calculate how likely a patient who has gone through surgery and radiotherapy will experience side effects, such as scarring, swelling of the arm (lymphoedema) and heart damage from radiation, years later.

There are around 55,900 new breast cancer cases in the UK every year, according to Cancer Research UK


Lymphoedema is a long-term condition that causes swelling in the body’s tissues.

It usually develops in the arms or legs.

Lymphoedema affects up to 10million people in the US and more than 200,000 in the UK. 

It occurs when the lymphatic system does not work properly.

The lymphatic system is a network of channels and glands that remove excess fluid and help fight infections.

As well as swelling, which is often worse during the day, other symptoms may include: 

  • An aching, heavy feeling
  • Difficulty moving
  • Repeated skin infections
  • Hard, tight skin
  • Wart-like growths
  • Fluid leaking from the skin
  • Folds developing in the skin

Lymphoedema can be inherited or occur as a result of infections, injuries or cancer treatment.

Around one in five women with breast cancer and half with vulval cancer develop lymphoedema. 

There is no cure. 

Treatment focuses on minimising fluid build up via compression stockings and a healthy lifestyle.

Source: NHS Choices 

Patients thought to be at higher risk could be offered alternative treatment, or extra support. 

The tool – found to be around 73 per cent accurate at making three-year predictions – was trained on more than 6,000 breast cancer patients. The results were shared at the European Breast Cancer Conference in Milan.

Consultant breast surgeon Dr Tim Rattay, based at the University of Leicester, told The Guardian: ‘We hope this will assist doctors and patients in choosing options for radiation treatment and reduce side-effects for all patients.’  

Dr Simon Vincent, director of research, support and influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said the tool was ‘exciting’.

He added: ‘This research is in its early stages and more evidence is needed before we can consider whether or not the AI tool could be used in medical settings, and we look forward to seeing results from the trial.’

Another AI tool called Mia successfully identified tiny signs of cancer in 11 women, which were missed by human doctors.

The tool was tested by NHS hospital Trust Grampian in Scotland. It analysed 10,000 mammograms. 

When cancers are in their earliest stages they can be extremely small and hard to spot, with many invisible to the human eye. But many cancers can grow and spread rapidly.

One of the 11 patients whose cancer was flagged by AI tool Mia was Barbara. 

Her cancer had been missed when studied by the hospital radiologists, the BBC reported. 

Barbara’s 6mm tumour was caught so early by AI that she only needed five days of radiotherapy and an operation.

Because Barbara had not noticed any symptoms, her cancer might have not been spotted for another three years at her next mammogram appointment. 

More than 90 per cent of women diagnosed with early-stage invasive breast cancer, with tumours smaller than 15mm, will survive the disease for five years or more, according to Cancer Research UK. 

Tools like Mia could help to reduce waiting time for results, from two weeks to just three days. 

The tool might even reduce workload as breast cancer doctors look at around 100 scans in a session.  

During the trial each patient had a human review as well as one by Mia. However, it is hoped that instead of having two radiologists examine each scan, one radiologist could be replaced by this tool.   

An AI tool called Mia, has successfully identified tiny signs of cancer in 11 women, which were missed by human doctors

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world and affects more than two MILLION women a year

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world. Each year in the UK there are more than 55,000 new cases, and the disease claims the lives of 11,500 women. In the US, it strikes 266,000 each year and kills 40,000. But what causes it and how can it be treated?

What is breast cancer?

It comes from a cancerous cell which develops in the lining of a duct or lobule in one of the breasts.

When the breast cancer has spread into surrounding tissue it is called ‘invasive’. Some people are diagnosed with ‘carcinoma in situ’, where no cancer cells have grown beyond the duct or lobule.

Most cases develop in those over the age of 50 but younger women are sometimes affected. Breast cancer can develop in men, though this is rare.

Staging indicates how big the cancer is and whether it has spread. Stage 1 is the earliest stage and stage 4 means the cancer has spread to another part of the body.

The cancerous cells are graded from low, which means a slow growth, to high, which is fast-growing. High-grade cancers are more likely to come back after they have first been treated.

What causes breast cancer?

A cancerous tumour starts from one abnormal cell. The exact reason why a cell becomes cancerous is unclear. It is thought that something damages or alters certain genes in the cell. This makes the cell abnormal and multiply ‘out of control’.

Although breast cancer can develop for no apparent reason, there are some risk factors that can increase the chance, such as genetics.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer?

The usual first symptom is a painless lump in the breast, although most are not cancerous and are fluid filled cysts, which are benign. 

The first place that breast cancer usually spreads to is the lymph nodes in the armpit. If this occurs you will develop a swelling or lump in an armpit.

How is breast cancer diagnosed?

  • Initial assessment: A doctor examines the breasts and armpits. They may do tests such as a mammography, a special x-ray of the breast tissue which can indicate the possibility of tumours.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is removed from a part of the body. The sample is then examined under a microscope to look for abnormal cells. The sample can confirm or rule out cancer.

If you are confirmed to have breast cancer, further tests may be needed to assess if it has spread. For example, blood tests, an ultrasound scan of the liver or a chest X-ray.

How is breast cancer treated?

Treatment options which may be considered include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone treatment. Often a combination of two or more of these treatments are used.

  • Surgery: Breast-conserving surgery or the removal of the affected breast depending on the size of the tumour.
  • Radiotherapy: A treatment which uses high energy beams of radiation focused on cancerous tissue. This kills cancer cells, or stops them from multiplying. It is mainly used in addition to surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: A treatment of cancer by using anti-cancer drugs which kill cancer cells, or stop them from multiplying.
  • Hormone treatments: Some types of breast cancer are affected by the ‘female’ hormone oestrogen, which can stimulate the cancer cells to divide and multiply. Treatments which reduce the level of these hormones, or prevent them from working, are commonly used in people with breast cancer.

How successful is treatment?

The outlook is best in those who are diagnosed when the cancer is still small, and has not spread. Surgical removal of a tumour in an early stage may then give a good chance of cure.

The routine mammography offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70 means more breast cancers are being diagnosed and treated at an early stage.

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