An AI Told Me I Had Cancer

ai healthcare
ai healthcare
 story is adapted from More than a Glitch: Confronting Race, Gender, and Ability Bias in Tech, by Meredith Broussard.

IN LATE 2019, I went in for what I thought was a routine mammogram. The radiologist reading my images told me there was an area of concern and that I should schedule a diagnostic ultrasound. At the ultrasound appointment a few days later, the tech lingered on an area of my left breast, and frowned at the screen. I knew then it would be bad. Another mammogram and several doctor visits later, it was certain: I had breast cancer.

Everybody freaks out when given a cancer diagnosis, but exactly how you freak out depends on your personality. My own coping mechanism involves trying to learn absolutely everything I can about my condition. And, because I think the poor user interface design of electronic medical record systems can lead to communication problems among medical professionals, I always poke around in my online medical chart. Attached to my mammography report from the hospital was a strange note: “This film was read by Dr. Soandso, and also by an AI.” An AI was reading my films? I hadn’t agreed to that. What was its diagnosis?

I had an upcoming appointment for a second opinion, and I figured I’d ask what the AI found. “Why did an AI read my films?” I asked the surgeon the next day.

“What a waste of time,” said the surgeon. They actually snorted, thinking the idea was so absurd. “Your cancer is visible to the naked eye. There is no point in having an AI read it.” They waved at the nearby computer screen, which showed the inside of my breast. The black and white image showed a semicircle on a black background filled with spidery ducts, with a bright white barbell marking the spot of my diagnostic biopsy. The cancerous area looked like a bunch of blobs to me. I felt grateful that this doctor was so expert and so eagle-eyed that they could spot a deadly growth in a sea of blobs. This was why I was going to a trained professional. I immediately decided this was the surgeon for me, and I signed a form agreeing to an eight-hour operation.

The doctors and nurses and staff who cared for me were fantastic. They were skilled at their jobs, and thoroughly professional. My cancer experience could have been terrifying, but instead it was manageable. Fast-forward a few months, and I was mercifully cancer-free and mostly recovered. I got a clean bill of health one year out, and because I was still curious about the