According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ovarian cancer “causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.” The American Cancer Society predicts that in 2023, 20,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer rates are declining, yet diagnosis often happens late because early symptoms can go unreported or undiagnosed.
The BBC has reported on a recent public healthstudy at Imperial College of London that found a correlation between ovarian cancer and two over-the-counter medications. It was intel from shopper loyalty cards, which track consumer purchases, that researchers now say could help identify early signs of ovarian cancer.
The ovarian cancer study
The study, published in January 2023 in the journal JMIR Public Health & Surveillance, used data from supermarket loyalty cards to come to an interesting conclusion: “There is a difference in purchases of pain and indigestion medications among women with and without ovarian cancer up to eight months before diagnosis.” This is because indigestion, abdominal bloating, and feeling full are a few of the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
“The more important issue raised by this study is the lack of awareness of ovarian cancer symptoms,” explains Jo Marie Tran Janco, MD, a gynecologic oncologist with Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center and Scripps Clinic in San Diego, CA. “In particular, new pelvic or abdominal pain, increased abdominal size and bloating, and feeling full very quickly or having difficulty eating, should be evaluated and ovarian cancer is a diagnosis (among others) that should be considered.” She notes that while the results from the UK study are uniquely telling, diagnosing ovarian cancer through pharmacy purchases isn’t the most critical issue.
“What this study highlights to me is that women and their physicians should have an awareness of the above symptoms and their association with ovarian cancer,” Dr. Janco says. “And rather than self-treating, discussion of the symptoms and establishing a follow-up plan is important.”
The moral of the study is to stay current on facts and myths about ovarian cancer and other common illnesses (especially when it comes to the leading causes of death, such as stroke and heart disease). While treating symptoms on a short-term basis with over-the-counter medications is typically fine, they’re not intended for long-term use. Consult your doctor: If you find yourself buying Costco-size packages of indigestion medication (or any medication) it would be wise to speak with your doctor about your symptoms—and advocate for testing and answers—so they can rule out the more serious, life-threatening conditions.
What should you do?
The best defense against ovarian cancer isn’t to buy your medication using a loyalty card that tracks your purchase,s but rather to educate yourself on the symptoms to watch out for. Dr. Janco points to a 2007 study led by Dr. Barbara Goff, MD, at the University of Washington that identified an index of ovarian cancer symptoms. If the symptoms present for less than a year and for more than 12 days per month, they are correlated with a possible eventual diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
In short, learn the common symptoms ovarian cancer, keeping in mind Dr. Janco’s point that persistent indigestion, bowel concerns, and constipation are possible signs worth asking your doctor about.