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Online calculator helps screen for cancer early

A new tool that flags certain symptoms of both lung cancer and gastroesophageal cancer could save 5,000 lives a year merely by speeding up diagnosis.

A nonprofit research database system called QResearch--which already screens for heart disease, kidney disease, and serious blood cots--is now introducing what look to be highly accurate lung and gastroesophageal cancer screenings as well.

The University of Nottingham and ClinRisk researchers behind the computer-based tool say that their findings, published this week in the British Journal of General Practice, indicate that 10 percent of the patients predicted to be most at risk of developing one of the cancers accounted for 77 percent of actual cancer diagnoses over the following two years.

Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners Dr. Clare Gerada said in a news release that this algorithm creates "great excitement for those of us working in primary care. Early diagnosis has a huge impact on treatment and survivorship of patients with lung and stomach-related cancers."

Many key symptoms that indicate these two common cancer types can be both common and nonspecific, such as age, weight loss, and smoking history. By analyzing a wide spectrum of symptoms simultaneously, as opposed to homing in on just one or two, the calculator is already proving successful at not letting early cases go unidentified.

"Incorporating this simple calculation into the consultation could give GPs a two-year head start on investigation and treatment," Gerada says, "with the potential to save thousands of lives."

Indeed, the researchers put the potential number of lives saved at 5,000 every year--quite a feat considering what's being introduced is not some kind of miracle drug or discovery but rather a simple diagnostic calculation.

While the tool was developed for general practitioners, simple Web versions have been produced in the hopes that these reach a wider audience. Of note: the tool calculates one's risk for developing a particular cancer over the course of the next two years; the result is not a diagnosis, but rather an indicator of whether someone should be inspected further.

The team's findings could even inform national guidelines for the referral of patients with suspected cancer. For instance, the U.K.'s National Institute of Clinical Excellence lung cancer guidelines recommend an urgent referral for a chest X-Ray should a patient have persistent symptoms such as coughing blood, chest pain, shortness of breath, cough, or weight loss, but not for appetite loss, even though this research shows that patients who also experience appetite loss are up to five times more likely to develop lung cancer.