In Kitchener, Ontario, a novel AI website has emerged as a vital companion for individuals diagnosed with breast cancer and their families. This initiative is the brainchild of Ellyn Winters-Robinson, a multifocal breast cancer survivor who channelled her own experience into helping others navigate through similar challenges.
Winters-Robinson’s personal struggle entailed a double mastectomy, multiple chemotherapy, and radiation sessions, but instead of succumbing to despair, she turned it into an opportunity to support others. She penned her experiences in a book titled “Flat Please: Hold the Shame”, intending to serve as a guide in the arduous journey that accompanies a cancer diagnosis.
This heartfelt account piqued the interest of Patrick Belliveau, the CEO of Kitchener-based tech start-up Shift Reality. This paved the way for an innovative collaboration named AskEllyn, a question-and-answer platform created for those struggling with cancer.
The team behind this unique initiative includes Belliveau, Chris Silivestru, and Ryan Burgio, along with Winters-Robinson. Their goal was to mitigate the sense of isolation stemming from a cancer diagnosis. To use the website, users simply pose their questions or thoughts into a text box, and responses viewed through the lens of Winters-Robinson’s experiences are provided.
As Belliveau captured it, it’s the equivalent of being able to converse with a book. The evolving website now holds the capability to engage in multiple languages and operates on the level of the user.
The platform serves as a haven for those struggling with questions they might have hesitated to raise in a medical environment, or were too intimidated to ask their acquaintances. Queries vary from handling the news with children to knowing what to carry for a chemotherapy session.
The fundamental aim of AskEllyn is to make users feel acknowledged and understood. As Winters-Robinson pointed out, she could have benefited from a tool like AskEllyn during her own journey with breast cancer.
However, the team inside Shift Reality was very clear to communicate that AskEllyn isn’t intended to replace professional medical counsel. The website bares a disclaimer emphasizing that it does not serve as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Roxanne Pendergast, a registered social worker who works in close proximity with cancer patients at Cambridge Memorial Hospital, sees AskEllyn as a valuable tool. She suggested its potential use for those hesitant to access group resources or reluctant to reach out. After exploring AskEllyn herself, she was pleased with the quality of the information provided.
Launched in October, the creators of AskEllyn are satisfied with its progress. They have ambitious plans to continually enhance its features and ultimately expand the platform to cater to different diseases and illnesses. Belliveau mentioned receiving queries on extending their services to ailments ranging from dementia to prostate cancer, highlighting the need for supportive tools catering to community support gaps.