What is Cancer Screening

Cancer screening describes a number of medical tests performed to identify any signs of cancer on the early stage before any symptoms develop. Early detection can improve the life expectancy as treatment would likely be more successful at early stages.

The NHS offers a range of national screening programmes for breast, cervical and bowel cancer. Each year almost 7.9 million appointments are attended and these screening programs save almost 9000 lives every year.

There is no organised screening programme for prostate cancer but an informed choice programme, Prostate Cancer Risk Management, has been introduced.

The NHS Cancer Screening Programs

Breast Screening

This is offered to women aged 50 to 70, with women over 70 able to self-refer. Breast screening saves one life for every 2,000 women screened, or up to 1,300 lives per year.

Cervical Screening

This is offered to women aged 25 to 64 (every three years to women aged 25 to 49 and every five years from the ages of 50 to 64). Cervical screening saves around 5,000 lives per year. The incidence of cervical cancer is expected to fall further as the effects of HPV vaccination start to emerge.

Bowel Cancer Screening

This is offered to men and women aged 60 to 74, with another one-off screening test offered to men and women at the age of 55 in some parts of England. Bowel cancer screening saves around 2,400 lives per year.

Prostate Cancer Screening

There is no organised screening programme for prostate cancer but an informed choice programme, Prostate Cancer Risk Management, has been introduced. If you are worried about a specific problem, or otherwise worried about the risks of cancer, then you should talk to your GP.

Private screening

All screening tests provided by the NHS are free. Private companies offer a range of screening tests that you have to pay for. Some of the tests on offer are not recommended by the UK NSC because it is not clear that the benefits outweigh the harms.

The UK NSC has produced a downloadable leaflet on private screening


Benefits, risks and limitations of screening

Making an informed choice

Before having any screening test, it’s worth finding out about the test itself and what would happen next if you found out you have a higher risk of a particular condition.

Deciding whether or not to have a screening test is a personal choice and one which only you can make. When you are invited for screening, you will receive an information leaflet about the screening test.

You can discuss any aspect of the screening test with your health professional and decide whether or not it’s right for you.

Different types of screening have different benefits and risks. Some of these are listed below.

The benefits of having a screening test include:

  • Screening can detect a problem early, before you have any symptoms.
  • Finding out about a problem early can mean that treatment is more effective.
  • Finding out you have a health problem or an increased risk of a health problem can help people make better informed decisions about their health.
  • Screening can reduce the risk of developing a condition or its complications.
  • Screening can save lives.

The risks and limitations of screening include:

  • Screening tests are not 100% accurate. You could be told you have a problem when you don’t – this is called a “false positive” and may lead to some people having unnecessary further tests or treatment as a result of screening. A screening test could also miss a problem – this is called a “false negative” and could lead to people ignoring symptoms in the future.
  • Some screening tests can lead to difficult decisions. For example, if a pregnancy screening test tells you your baby has a higher risk of a particular condition, you may then be faced with a decision about having further diagnostic tests that involve a risk to your pregnancy. If the diagnostic test is positive, you may then need to decide whether to continue with your pregnancy.
  • Finding out you may have a health problem can cause considerable anxiety.
  • Even if your screening test result is normal or negative (meaning you are not at high risk), you could still go on to develop the condition.