Women’s shopping habits could be used to help doctors work out ovarian cancer risk

How’s this for some clever research – using loyalty cards in pharmacies to track ­purchases of over-the-counter medicines to elicit clues about possible cases of ovarian cancer.

Scientists from University College London, Imperial College London and Birmingham University were able to tie purchases of pain and indigestion medicines to women who were ­subsequently diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This change in purchasing habit could be seen eight months before diagnosis.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer are often difficult to pin down leading some women to downplay symptoms and resort to medicines from a pharmacy. Early symptoms can include loss of appetite, stomach pain and bloating.

This means ovarian cancers are often diagnosed late, by which time the cancer has already spread and a cure is unlikely.

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the UK, with around 7,400 people diagnosed and more than 4,000 deaths each year. One in five women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed in A&E meaning they’re too unwell for treatment by the time the cancer is discovered.

UCL’s Dr Yasemin Hirst, lead ­behavioural scientist on the project, says: “The Cancer Loyalty Card Study is one of the leading projects showing that our health behaviours can be measured beyond health-care records using transactional data.

“This data is very exciting for behavioural scientists to further explore lifestyle changes, dietary behaviours and perhaps exploring other datasets, such as biosensors, that can provide more information about self-care and health outcomes.”

The research included loyalty card data from two UK-based high-street retailers of 273 women, 153 of whom had ovarian cancer and 120 who didn’t. The researchers studied six years’ worth of purchase histories from the women.

The findings could help identify those with ovarian cancer at an earlier stage, one of the most effective ways to improve survival. If diagnosed at the earliest stage 93% of women survive their cancer for five years, but only 13% survive when diagnosed at the latest stage.

Lead author Dr James Flanagan of Imperial College London 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.

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

It’s hoped this research could pioneer an alert system for women to help them seek medical attention for symptoms of cancer, or other diseases, sooner than they might otherwise.