App Aims to Help Breast Cancer Survivors

By Sharon Henry

Dara Sorkin, associate professor in UC Irvine’s Department of Medicine, presents her mobile app project to SURT-IoT fellows



Irvine, July 24, 2015— Four years ago while pregnant with her third child, Dara Sorkin, an associate professor in UC Irvine’s Department of Medicine, was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. “When you have gestational diabetes, you have to watch your weight gain very carefully. If you don’t do a good job managing your blood sugar you could have a baby who is born too big. It’s not good,” she told attendees at this week’s SURF-IoT seminar at Calit2. When the standardized diet plan she was prescribed failed to produce positive results, Sorkin began experimenting with her diet and lifestyle, and was surprised to discover that eating (or not eating) certain foods didn’t correlate with losing weight. What mattered most was learning how to make the right choices and trade-offs, she said. “I realized if I want to eat a big piece of cake, I can eat it if I make the decision to go on a very long walk after I eat it.”

It was this experience that sparked the idea for a mobile app to help people lose weight, exercise and eat healthily, Sorkin told the SURF-IoT Fellows and guests.

She took her idea to Yunan Chen and Alfred Kobsa in UCI’s Department of Informatics. “I told them, I really want to intervene with people in a way that would allow them to think about these trade-offs in their own lives,” she said.



With help from the Informatics department, along with funding from the National Cancer Institute, Sorkin is refining her original concept to develop “Mi Vida, Mi Salud” (My Life, My Health), a mobile app designed to help users maintain a healthy lifestyle.

While scores of apps available today offer generalized weight-loss information, “Mi Vida, Mi Salud” is being designed specifically for Latina breast cancer survivors.

In the U.S., cancer is the leading cause of death for Hispanics, and breast cancer is the most common cancer to strike Latina women. In addition, Mexican-American women are more prone to obesity compared to white women, and twice as likely to report a sedentary lifestyle. This puts them at greater risk because obesity has been found to increase a woman’s risk for more aggressive types of breast cancer. "Fat tissue produces excess amounts of estrogen, high levels of which have been associated with the risk of breast cancer," Sorkin said.

In addition, many breast cancer patients are prescribed Tamoxifen for up to five years following their treatment. The drug, which lowers estrogen in an effort to reduce the likelihood of cancer returning, has an undesirable side effect, however. Many women experience extreme fatigue, making it a challenge to begin an exercise program.



Last month 17 focus groups were held at the UCI Family Health Center in Santa Ana to identify physical, economic and cultural barriers that restricted these women from having a healthy lifestyle. Participants included 60 Latina women who had been treated for breast cancer and 30 of their family members.

Findings showed women who reported a better quality of life had a better body image. “Body image predicts engaging in a healthy diet. Women who feel good about themselves are more likely to engage in a healthy lifestyle,” Sorkin said.

She concluded that with a bit of guidance, these women could make better decisions about how and when they would exercise.



“Mi Vida, Mi Salud” is designed to increase a user’s knowledge about healthy eating and exercise, and improve her emotional state and motivation, resulting in changed behavior.

Women will be able to input data to track their eating, exercise and mood. Users can review not only what foods they ate and how much they exercised during times of weight loss or weight gain, they also will receive feedback about their emotional state during that time period. The goal is to motivate the user, which over time, will result in a change in behavior. “As people are doing the kinds of things to bring about weight loss, they feel good, and they’ll do more of that,” Sorkin said.

SURF-IoT Fellow Nicole Ulgado is developing the interface for the app. Her report next month will provide updates on the status of “Mi Vida, Mi Salud,” which is on target to be completed by the end of August.

A randomized trial of 48 Latina breast cancer survivors is scheduled for October. Half of the women will receive a mobile phone with a basic version of the app that accepts input for food and exercise, but does not record mood. The other 24 participants will get a mobile phone with the complete “Mi Vida, Mi Salud” app. This version provides feedback on the user’s mood, as well as food and exercise tracking. Over a six-month period, Sorkin will collect data to determine if either group reports eating healthier and/or losing weight.