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Screening for cancer

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about cancer screening in general. You can find information about


What screening is

Screening means looking for early signs of a particular disease in healthy people who do not have any symptoms. Screening for cancer aims to find cancers as early as possible - when the chance of cure is highest. Sometimes screening programmes can find changes that would lead to cancer if they were not treated. So cancer screening aims to prevent cancer or detect it at a very early stage.


When screening is helpful

There are many types of cancer. To be able to screen for a particular type of cancer we must have a test that can find that particular cancer early. This is why we can't screen for all types of cancer. We do not yet have reliable tests for most of them. Once a test is found, researchers have to make sure that

  • The test does not say you have cancer if you don't - a false positive result
  • The test does not miss too many cancers - false negative results
  • The test is easy to do and not unpleasant or harmful for the people being screened
  • The screening test is cost effective

A false positive result is when the screening test says you may have cancer, but in fact you don't. This causes a lot of anxiety. It also means that people have to have unnecessary tests to try to find the cancer, when they actually don't have cancer.

False negative results are also important because you may be reassured that you don't have cancer, when in fact you do.

It takes large clinical trials to test any new screening methods and make sure they are effective, acceptable and affordable for health services.


Cancers we can screen for

The UK has established national screening programmes for breast cancer, cervical cancer and bowel cancer. There are effective tests for these types of cancer.


Other tests

There are no effective screening tests for other types of cancer yet and so there are currently no other cancer screening programmes in the UK.

Research is looking into screening tests for prostate cancer and ovarian cancer. But there are no plans to introduce screening programmes in the UK for these cancers because there are no proven tests yet.

Some people who are at a high risk of developing certain types of cancer may be offered the chance to have regular tests or check ups.

People at high risk of melanoma skin cancer can ask to be referred to a skin specialist (a dermatologist) to have their moles checked. Or you can ask your GP to refer you to a pigmented lesion clinic. This is a specialist clinic where you can have your moles checked regularly. But they are not set up everywhere in the UK so talk to your GP about the choices available in your area.

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Updated: 21 February 2013