What is cancer screening?

Screening for cancer is something that healthy people undergo. It is not for people who suspect they have cancer or have symptoms that could be attributed to cancer. If that is the case, you should see a doctor.

Cancer screening checks for some early indications and signs that could be the start of cancer. It helps doctors find cancer at a stage when it might not otherwise be noticeable. At this stage, treatment is much more likely to be a success and thus, the survival rates are considerably better.

For some cancers, it picks up on early changes and pre-cancerous cells, which allows treatment to occur to prevent them from becoming cancerous. For example, cervical screening works in this way.

What screening programs exist and who are they available to?

The UK has several cancer screening programmes.

Breast cancer screening is available to women between the ages of 50 and 70 across the UK. Some areas in England are seeing if screening women between the ages of 47 to 73 have any effect.

Cervical cancer screen is available to women between the ages of 25 and 64 across the UK. Women are offered cervical screening every three years between the ages of 25 and 49 and every five years thereafter.

Bowel screening is available to both women and men who are between the ages of 60 and 74. In Scotland, both women and men are offered screening from age 50. There is also another type of screening that is being rolled out in England for people aged 55 called Bowel Scope.

Screening for those with a high risk

There are people whose risk of developing certain cancers is higher perhaps due to family history or medical conditions. For these people, GPs may recommend different tests or more frequent screening tests.

What if you fall outside the screening age eligibility?

If your age puts you outside the cancer screening criteria it is still possible to be screened, you just won’t be automatically invited. You can request an appointment for breast screening, cervical screening or request a kit for bowel screening. Your first port of call is your GP and he or she will be able to tell you how to go about it.

Do I need to be screened?

The choice is yours about whether or not to attend the cancer screening. When your invitation arrives you will be sent lots of information about the benefits of screening alongside the harms. This information should help you to decide. You can always ask your GP if you have further questions.

What are the benefits of cancer screening?

Each year thousands of lives are saved thanks to cancer screening.

It is possible to detect cancers at an early stage with cancer screening. If cancer is picked up at an early stage, treatments are more effective and survival rates are vastly better.

The cervical cancer screening programme also prevents cancer, as does the new bowel cancer screening, the Bowel Scope test. These tests are able to detect pre-cancerous cells and abnormalities that could turn into cancer. With this knowledge, doctors are able to treat abnormal cells and prevent them from turning into cancer.

Can screening cause harm?

Of course, the benefits of cancer screening far outweigh the negatives but it is not a perfect process. Sometimes screening can miss cancers. This is why it is really important to know your body well and to see a GP if you notice anything unusual, even if your screening results were normal.

Screening can also cause people to be anxious if they have to have a repeated test or extra tests, even if the end result is that they don’t have cancer.

Also, screening sometimes picks up cancers that are slow-growing and don’t cause problems. However, there is no way from distinguishing between cancer that is a worry and cancer that isn’t going to cause harm. This does mean that some people will have to have a diagnosis when it might not be necessary. Added to this are the emotional side effects caused by having a cancer diagnosis.

Finally, there is the possibility that the screen tests have side effects. For example, pain, bleeding or infections.

The importance of knowing your body

We are lucky that such screening programmes exist and that they can save lives. However, not all screening tests are perfect and not all cancers have screening tests.

One of the most important things is to know your body well. This means that you’ll be able to pick up on any changes that are unusual. If you’re due a screening test soon or you have just had one, this shouldn’t be a reason not to see your doctor about changes. You should always get them checked out.