Cancer screening - don't miss out

Portrait of woman ready for mammogram exam.Pic: Getty Images

Early diagnosis is a major factor in the successful treatment of cancer, but often the symptoms go unnoticed. Here in the UK though, there are screening services available on the NHS that are designed to detect the development of cancer early, and therefore give sufferers the best chance of beating the disease.

Breast cancer screening
The most common cancer among women, breast screening involves an x-ray of each breast, known as a mammogram, which detects small changes in breast tissue that may indicate cancer. Because the procedure involves compressing the breast slightly, most women find it uncomfortable, or even painful.

Who is it for?
If you are a woman over the age of 50, you will be invited to attend the NHS Breast Screening Programme for a mammogram once every three years until the age of 70. These invitations are sent out on a rolling basis via your GP, and so while you may not be invited as soon as you turn 50, you will have been for your first mammogram before your 53rd birthday. Once you are over 70, you can request a mammogram every three years from your local screening unit.

If you are in a high risk breast cancer category, however, (for example if there is a family history of the disease), speak to your GP about having the risk assessed.

What happens?
Your visit to the screening unit will take about half an hour, during which the mammography practitioner checks your personal details, any symptoms or history of the disease, and explains the procedure and answers any questions you may have. The x-rays will be examined, and the results sent to both you and your GP within two weeks.

If there has been a problem with the x-ray or a potential abnormality is detected, you will be asked to return for a further mammogram at an assessment clinic. This may include more x-rays taken from different angles, an ultrasound examination, core biopsy or needle test to take a sample of breast tissue (performed under local anaesthetic), and/or a clinical examination.

Should cancer be detected, you will be referred to a consultant surgeon to discuss the options. A report published by the Department of Health in 2011 revealed that around a third of breast cancers had been diagnosed through screening.

Cervical screening
While not a test for cancer itself, cervical screening detects early abnormalities which could lead to cancer of the cervix if left untreated.

Who is it for?
All women aged between 25 and 64 will be invited for a free cervical screening test, or 'smear', every three to five years, depending on your age. Between the ages of 25 and 49, you will be invited every three years, while 50 to 64-year-olds will be invited every five years. For the over-65s, screening will only take place if you have not been tested since the age of 50 or have had recent abnormal results.

The incidence of cervical cancer in women who have never been sexually active is known to be very low, so it may be that you wish to decline screening if this is the case. For all other women within the age group, though, it is recommended.

What happens?
Once you reach the age of eligibility, you will receive an invitation, usually via your GP. You can choose whether to have your GP, practice nurse or family planning clinic perform the test, and you are perfectly within your rights to request a female doctor or nurse.

The procedure itself takes a matter of minutes, with the practitioner using an instrument called a speculum to open up the vagina. A small soft brush is then used to 'sweep' the cervix, taking a sample of cells. This is then sent to a laboratory for examination. Most women experience only mild discomfort during the procedure, and occasionally some slight and short-lived bleeding, or 'spotting'.

Results are commonly sent out to you within two weeks from the date of your test, although in some cases if the results are normal you may not hear anything at all. According to the NHS, of the 3.3 million women tested in 2010-11, 93.4 per cent had a normal result.

If something abnormal is detected, you may be referred for treatment, or be asked to have a repeat test in six or 12 months.

Bowel cancer screening
The third most common cancer in the UK and the second leading cause of deaths from cancer, a review published in 2006 revealed that regular screening for bowel cancer could reduce the risk of dying from the disease by 16 per cent. It is used to detect the early signs of the disease, even before symptoms appear, making treatment more effective. It can also detect polyps which, though not cancers in themselves, may develop in time. These can easily be removed, thereby reducing the risk of cancer further.

Who is it for?
The NHS offers bowel cancer screening to all men and women aged 60 to 69 every two years, and those over 70 can request a screening kit via a free helpline on 0800 707 6060.

What happens?
The procedure takes place in the comfort of your own home. Following your invitation letter and a leaflet explaining the process and details, you will receive a faecal occult blood test kit (FOB). Step-by-step instructions on how to complete the test and send the samples back for examination are included, and the results are typically sent back within two weeks. In the region of 98 out of 100 people receive a normal result via routine screening.

If you receive an abnormal result, you will be offered an appointment with a specialist nurse, and you may need a colonoscopy, where a tiny camera is inserted via the rectum, allowing the consultant to see any polyps. Any that are found can be removed painlessly, and the tissue samples will be checked for any signs that they might develop into cancerous cells.

Screening for any cancer can be worrying for a lot of people, but these procedures can save lives. If you are invited to attend screening, don't put it off.

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