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Could loyalty cards help detect cancer?

Posted on the 31st January 2023

Medicines Aisle

Loyalty cards could be the latest weapon in the fight against ovarian cancer.

A study using loyalty card data on over-the-counter medicine purchases found that pain and indigestion medication purchases were higher in women who went on to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, usually about eight months later.

The study of 300 women was led by researchers at Imperial College London and used six years’ worth of purchase histories using loyalty card data from two UK-based high street retailers of 283 women, of whom 153 had ovarian cancer.

Participants were asked to complete a short questionnaire about ovarian cancer risk factors, the symptoms they experienced, and the number of visits to their GP in the year leading up to cancer referral or diagnosis.

On average, participants with ovarian cancer began to recognise their symptoms about four and a half months before diagnosis. Of those who visited a GP to check their symptoms, the first visit occurred, on average, about three and a half months before diagnosis.

More research is needed to confirm the study’s findings, including larger studies with patients diagnosed at different stages, as well as to determine if it works for other cancers with non-specific symptoms, such as stomach, liver and bladder cancers.

The researchers hope that an alert system could eventually be developed to encourage people to seek medical attention for symptoms of cancer or other diseases sooner than they might do otherwise.

Early symptoms of ovarian cancer include loss of appetite, stomach pain and bloating, which leads to some people buying painkillers and digestive aids such as antacids from a pharmacy instead of visiting a GP because they do not think their condition is serious.

This lack of clear signs results in many people with ovarian cancer being diagnosed late, often when the cancer has already spread and when their likelihood of survival is much lower.

Survival rates are much higher for people diagnosed at the earliest stage relative to the latest – 93 per cent compared with 13 per cent.

One in five people with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in A&E and many do not receive any treatment for their disease, often because they are too unwell by the time they are diagnosed.

Related: Cervical cancer screening hits 10-year low

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