What are the signs of ovarian cancer?
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Patients often try to manage early symptoms such as bloating and stomach pain themselves before seeking help from a GP.
Researchers found women who started buying more painkillers and indigestion drugs were more likely to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer months later.
The study used six years’ worth of loyalty card data for two high street retailers from 283 women, 153 of whom had ovarian cancer.
Dr James Flanagan, from Imperial College London’s Department of Surgery & Cancer, said: “Our study found a noticeable increase in purchases of pain and indigestion medications among women with ovarian cancer up to eight 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.”
On average participants in the study who had ovarian cancer began noticing symptoms four and a half months before their diagnosis.
It is the sixth most common cancer in the UK, with around 7,400 women diagnosed per year. But a fifth of cases are not caught until the patient ends up in A&E, reducing their chances of successful treatment.
More than nine in ten sufferers survive for at least five years if diagnosed at the earliest stage, but survival drops to just 13 per cent for those diagnosed late at stage four.
Fiona Murphy, 39, of north-west London, was diagnosed in 2008 and helped develop the study.
She said: “I lived on Gaviscon for 18 months prior to my ovarian cancer diagnosis, it went everywhere with me due to severe acid reflux.
“Had this been associated with ovarian cancer, I would have had a faster diagnosis, far less surgeries and better fertility options.”
The findings, published in the journal JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, could lead to the development of an alert system to flag up individuals with possible cancer symptoms.
Researchers now plan to investigate whether the same technique could be used for other cancers with non-specific symptoms, such as stomach, liver and bladder cancer.
The work by experts at Imperial, University College London and the University of Birmingham was funded by Cancer Research UK (CRUK).
Dr David Crosby, CRUK’s head of prevention and early detection research, 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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