You can shop online, pay your bills online, and now you may be able to diagnose pancreatic cancer and colorectal cancer online. A team of experts from the University of Nottingham and ClinRisk Ltd have developed online tests that could help healthcare providers identify and diagnose pancreatic and colorectal cancers more rapidly, which could save many lives per year.
Pancreatic and colorectal cancers are two of the most lethal cancers, as well as two forms of cancer that are not often diagnosed during their early stages. Delayed diagnosis is one reason why these cancers are associated with high mortality rates.
Among people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, for example, nearly 75% die within a year of getting their diagnosis. Currently there are no reliable screening tests available for pancreatic cancer, and along with the fact that there are few recognized risk factors, makes the development of a new online diagnostic tool all the more appealing.
The new online diagnostic tests work by cross-referencing symptoms and risk factors of patients and then noting those that are most likely to lead to a diagnosis of pancreatic or colorectal cancer. Different risks affecting men and women were also taken into account. General practitioners (GPs) could incorporate the new algorithms into their computers so they would be alerted to patients who are at high risk of developing these cancers.
According to the study’s lead researcher, Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox in the University of Nottingham’s Division of Primary Care, “We hope these new tools will help GPs with the difficult task of identifying patients with suspected cancer earlier and that this in turn could help improve treatment options and outcomes for patients.”
The researchers tested the algorithms by using data from 564 GPs practices and based on known symptoms and risk factors for both pancreatic cancer and colorectal cancer. For the former, the test successfully predicted 62% of all pancreatic cancers diagnosed during the subsequent two years, which represented the top 10% of patients predicted to be most at risk for the disease.
Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include smoking (about 33% of pancreatic cancer is associated with smoking), diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, age (risk increases with advancing age), family history, and overweight/obesity. Symptoms of the disease, which typically do not appear until patients are past the early stages, include loss of appetite, abdominal pain, weight loss, and pancreatitis. When the researchers used the algorithm for identifying which patients were most likely to develop colorectal cancer over the next two years, the test found 70% of all bowel cancer patients subsequently diagnosed were in the top 10% of patients predicted to be at greatest risk.
For colorectal cancer, risk factors include age over 50, presence of colorectal polyps, family history of colorectal cancer, changes in genes, smoking, and a high-fat diet. Among the main symptoms are weight loss, appetite loss, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and rectal bleeding. As a result of this study, one online calculator for pancreatic cancer and one for colorectal cancer have been developed for doctors. However, the authors noted that a simpler version of the algorithms could become available online for the general public.
The development of these new online tests for pancreatic cancer and colorectal cancer is an example of how the Internet can be used to promote and support better health. If the algorithms become available to the general public, they will hopefully prompt individuals with risk factors or symptoms to consult their doctor immediately.