How loyalty card data could identify symptoms of ovarian cancer sooner

How loyalty card data could identify symptoms of ovarian cancer sooner
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Loyalty card data from over-the-counter medicine purchases could help spot symptoms of ovarian cancer sooner.

Imperial College London researchers explored whether there is a link between a diagnosis of ovarian cancer and a history of buying over-the-counter pain and indigestion medications, such as painkillers and digestive acids like antacids.

Ovarian cancer affects the ovaries that store eggs required to make babies. It mainly affects women over 50 and can often run in families. The main symptoms of ovarian cancer include frequently feeling bloated, having no appetite, indigestion, constipation and needing to pee.

The study is published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.

Using loyalty card data to recognise symptoms of ovarian cancer

The study included researchers from Imperial College London, UCL and the University of Birmingham and was funded by Cancer Research UK. The team analysed loyalty card data from 273 participants, and among these participants, 153 women had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and 120 had not. The researchers studied six years’ worth of purchase histories from the women.

Participants completed a short questionnaire about risk factors, along with symptoms of ovarian cancer if they had experienced any and the number of visits to their GP in the year leading up to cancer referral or diagnosis for some cases.

Dr James Flanagan, the lead author for the study from Imperial’s Department of Surgery & Cancer, said: “The cancer symptoms we are looking for are very common, but for some women, they could be the first signs of something more serious.

“Using shopping data, our study found a noticeable increase in purchases of pain and indigestion medications among women with ovarian cancer up to 8 months before diagnosis, compared with women without ovarian cancer. This suggests that long before women have recognised their symptoms as alarming enough to go to the GP, they may be treating them at home.

“As we know early diagnosis of ovarian cancer is key to improving chances of survival, we hope this research can lead to ovarian cancer symptoms being picked up earlier and improve patients’ options for treatment.”

Symptoms were recognised around four and half months before diagnosis

On average, the researchers found that participants with symptoms of ovarian cancer noticed them around four and a half months before diagnosis. Of those who visited a GP to check their symptoms, the first visit occurred, on average, about 3 and a half months before diagnosis.

Furthermore, pain and indigestion medicine purchases were higher in the women who were later diagnosed, compared to women who did not receive an ovarian cancer diagnosis. The change in purchases, seen from their loyalty card data, could be seen eight months before diagnosis.

The researchers noted that more research is required to confirm their findings, and hope that future studies with patients diagnosed at varying stages will be included. They also hope that the research could lead to the future development of an alert system for individuals to help them seek medical attention for symptoms of ovarian cancer and other diseases.

Dr David Crosby, Head of Prevention and Early Detection Research at Cancer Research UK, said: “Today, in the digital age, we live with a wealth of data at our fingertips. Studies like this are a great example of how we can harness this information for good and help us detect cancer earlier.

“It’s incredible to think that this innovative study using loyalty cards, something most of us carry in our wallets, could help women with ovarian cancer, which is often diagnosed late and mimics the symptoms of other, more benign conditions.

“Whilst further research with more patients is needed, this study indicates exciting potential for a new way to detect cancer earlier and save lives.”



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