What is cancer screening?
Cancer screening is meant for healthy people with no symptoms at all. Screening looks for early signs that could indicate cancer is developing. It can help spot cancers at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful and the chances of survival are much better. In some cases, it can even prevent cancers from developing at all, by picking up early changes that can then be treated to stop them turning into cancer.
If you have noticed an unusual change in your body that doesn’t go away, or you have noticed something that could be a sign of cancer, please see your GP. This is important even if you have recently had screening, or if you will be having screening soon.
We know that cancer screening saves thousands of lives each year. It can detect cancers at an early stage and in some cases, even prevent cancers from developing in the first place. But screening is not perfect. The tests can miss cancers, and have other risks too.
Whether or not to go for screening is your choice. You should read the information you are sent with your screening invitation to help you make an informed decision, and ask your doctor if you need help.
What screening programmes are available?
In the UK there are national screening programmes for breast, cervical and bowel cancer. There is no screening programme for prostate cancer because the PSA test is not reliable enough, but men over 50 can have the test if they ask for it. Click here to find out more.
is offered to women aged 50-70 in all UK nations. Women over 70 can still be screened, but will need to make their own appointment as they will not get an invitation. In England, this age range is gradually being extended to 47-73. The test – or mammogram – uses x-rays to detect small changes in breast tissue which may indicate cancers too small to be detected by touch. Read more about breast screening and view a short video of what to expect at the screening appointment here.
is offered to women aged 25-64 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, women aged 20-60 are offered screening, but this is changing to become the same as the other countries from 2016.
Most of us know what’s involved in a cervical screening test – also called a smear test. It’s carried out by the doctor or nurse who inserts a speculum into the vagina to hold the walls of the vagina open. Then they use a small instrument to collect some cells from your cervix. The cells are sent to a lab for analysis; if changes are found, you may be asked to go for a repeat test, or referred for another examination. Read more about cervical screening here.
is offered to men and women aged 60-74 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, men and women aged 50-74 are offered screening. In England, a new test called Bowel Scope is starting to be offered to people at age 55.
You carry out the initial test yourself using a faecal occult blood (FOC) testing kit that will be sent to you in the post. Based on the results of this test, you may be asked to repeat it in two years’ time, repeat it immediately, or invited for more detailed examination via colonoscopy. Read more about bowel screening and view an animated film of how to use the testing kit here.
You will be invited for screening as long as you are registered with a GP. If you aren’t registered, you can find a local GP.
If you are older than the age range for breast screening in any UK nation, or for bowel screening in England and Scotland, you can still be screened if you want. But you won’t get an automatic invitation. You can make your own breast screening appointment, or request a bowel screening kit. How to do this depends on your local area, but your GP surgery can tell you who to contact.
What about people with a high family risk of cancer?
Some people may have a higher risk of certain cancers, perhaps because of a strong family history. Their doctors may recommend they have some extra tests that are different to screening for the general population. Find out more about genes and cancer risk here.
What if I’m not eligible for screening?
No matter what age you are, if you notice anything out of the ordinary for you and your body, it’s important to see your doctor to get checked out.