How your shopping habits could help diagnose ovarian cancer eight months earlier

Women with ovarian cancer turn to over-the-counter solutions first. according to researchers - AntonioGuillem/iStockphoto
Women with ovarian cancer turn to over-the-counter solutions first. according to researchers - AntonioGuillem/iStockphoto

Ovarian cancer can be diagnosed eight months earlier than normal by studying loyalty card data showing which medicines women have bought, a new study has shown.

Women suffering the early symptoms of ovarian cancer tend to suffer gastric problems, bloating or abdominal pain which they often do not recognise as serious.

Instead, they turn to over-the-counter remedies to solve the issues, and those purchases can be used to spot if problems are brewing, scientists have found.

In a new study, researchers at Imperial College and Lancaster University looked at the loyalty card records of nearly 300 women, of whom more than half had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

They found there was a significant uptick in the buying of over-the-counter pain and indigestion medications, such as pain killers and digestive aids like antacid in the months before a cancer diagnosis.

The change in purchases could be seen up to eight months before diagnosis.

Dr James Flanagan, lead author for the study, from Imperial College’s Department of Surgery and 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 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.”

Sixth most common cancer

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the UK, with around 7,400 people diagnosed each year and more than 4,000 deaths each year from the disease.

One in five women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in accident and emergency departments and many do not receive any treatment for their disease, often because they are too unwell by the time they are diagnosed.

The study findings could help to identify people who may have ovarian cancer at an earlier stage, which is one of the most effective ways to improve survival.

Figures suggest that 93 per cent of people diagnosed with ovarian cancer survive their disease for five years or more if diagnosed at the earliest stage compared to just 13 per cent when diagnosed at the latest stage.

Experts said that ovarian cancer patients were buying twice as much indigestion medication as healthy individuals in the year before their diagnoses.

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.”

The research was published in the journal JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.