Alarming confusion about cancer screening

Cancer Research UK

Less than one in five people can name the three cancers screened for by the NHS screening programme - new figures reveal today.

The Cancer Research UK survey* of more than 4,150 people revealed that only 16 per cent could correctly identify breast, cervical, and bowel cancer as the three cancers currently screened for by the NHS.

Publication of the data comes as Cancer Research UK continues its call for the government and the NHS to further improve screening services. The charity's "Screening Matters" campaign aims to raise awareness of cancer screening and help increase uptake of the services.

Recognition among women for the breast screening programme was 94 per cent - but less than 60 per cent of women knew about cervical screening. Knowledge of bowel cancer screening was lowest with only 25 per cent of people aware of the programme.

Screening plays a vital role in improving the outcome of cancer treatment by detecting cancer early or picking up changes before cancer develops.

Breast cancer screening in England is estimated to prevent around 1,400 deaths from breast cancer yearly. Figures for the cervical screening programme in England show that around 4,500 deaths per year are prevented. Researchers have also calculated that there will be 20,000 fewer deaths from bowel cancer over the next 20 years thanks to the roll-out of the bowel cancer screening programme.

In England the number of eligible women attending cervical smear tests improved from just above 40 per cent in 1989 to 82 per cent in 1995. Recent figures show this rate has fallen to 79 per cent.

Almost 75 per cent of women aged 50 or older who were invited for breast screening accepted their invitation in the year 2005/6. Research from the bowel cancer screening programme shows that around 57 per cent of people who are sent screening kits will take part.

The Screening Matters campaigns aims to clear up any confusion about cancer screening and increase the number of people participating in screening. With more people attending screening more cancer deaths will be prevented.

Professor Stephen Duffy, Cancer Research UK's professor of screening, said: "The uncertainty around what is screened for could be from a range of reasons. Lack of knowledge of the bowel cancer screening programme may be because the programme only recently began and is not yet available across the UK. There may be confusion that what is commonly called a smear test is a cervical screening test to detect abnormal cells before they become cancerous. Whatever the reasons may be, more work needs to be done to improve the awareness and understanding of cancer screening across the UK."

The NHS breast and cervical screening programmes began in 1988. The new bowel cancer screening programme began last year. This programme is currently being rolled out across the UK inviting men and women between 60 and 69 in England with nationwide coverage being reached by 2009.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of health information, said: "Cancer screening saves lives but we know it could save even more. Screening is vital in detecting cancer early and also preventing it. These results highlight a worrying lack of awareness about what cancers are screened for. Our concern is that this confusion may mean that some people may not take up their invitation to take part in cancer screening. We urge everyone to go for screening when invited - it could save your life."

For media enquiries please contact the Press Office on 020 7061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

Notes to Editor

*BMRB face to face survey carried out in October 2007 of around 4,150 people.

Participants were aged 15 and over.

The question was: What types of cancer can a person be invited to be screened for by the NHS?

About Screening Matters

Our Screening Matters campaign highlights the particular areas where we would like the Government to take most urgent action on screening. There are four things we want the Government to commit to:

  • Screen at least three million more people over the next five years.
  • Reduce the variation in screening across the UK.
  • Reach out to people eligible for screening who aren't taking part.
  • Provide the best possible screening programmes through funding, staffing and measuring success.

Screening Matters is a new campaign co-ordinated by Cancer Research UK in partnership with Beating Bowel Cancer, the Bobby Moore Fund, Bowel Cancer UK, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, Breast Cancer Campaign, Breast Cancer Care and Jo's Trust.

Visit Screening Matters for more information about the campaign.

Breast screening:

  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in the UK.
  • Screening is estimated to save around 1,400 women's lives a year in England.
  • Breast screening will be extended to 47-73 year olds by 2012 in England.

Cervical screening:

  • Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer after breast cancer in women in their thirties.
  • Cervical screening saves an estimated 4,500 women's lives a year in England.
  • Over 3.5 million women were screened in England in 2005.

Bowel cancer screening:

  • Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK after breast and lung.
  • Bowel cancer screening for both men and women aged 60 to 69, will be fully rolled out in England in 2009.
  • Researchers have calculated it will save at least 20,000 lives over the next 20 years if just 60 per cent of those eligible for bowel cancer screening went ahead with the simple procedure.
  • Bowel cancer screening will be extended to 70-75 year olds from 2010 in England.

About Cancer Research UK

  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
  • Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
  • Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.
  • For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit our homepage.

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