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Screening for cancer

Screening can detect early signs of cancerCancer screening involves testing apparently healthy people for signs that could indicate cancer is developing.

Screening can help doctors find cancer early, before any symptoms develop. Screening can also be used to prevent cancer from developing in the first place.

In the UK, we have national screening programmes, for breast, cervical and bowel cancers.

We know that cancer screening saves thousands of lives each year.

In this section you can find out more about the three cancer screening programmes in the UK and the potential for screening for other cancers.

Why screen for cancer?

  • Screening can detect cancer at an early stage. For most cancers, early detection means that treatments are easier and have a higher chance of success.
  • Some, but not all, screening programmes can also prevent cancer. The cervical and bowel cancer screening programmes can detect abnormal changes before they progress to full-blown cancer. Treating these changes can prevent cancer from developing at all.

If someone gets a positive result in a screening test, it doesn’t mean they definitely have cancer. But it does mean that they need to have more tests to find out whether they have cancer or not.

Why don't we screen for every cancer?

A screening programme can only be set up for a particular cancer if it will do more good than harm. We also need to have a good enough test for it. A good test must:

  • reliably detect any cancers or abnormal changes that could lead to cancer
  • not cause too many false alarms
  • be acceptable, so that people will actually take the test
  • not be dangerous to health
  • be cost-effective.

If a cancer is rare, it wouldn’t be an effective use of time and money to screen the entire population, and could cause unnecessary worry for those being screened. If good tests are available for rarer cancers, doctors will often offer them to particular groups of people who have the highest risks of the disease.

Knowing your body is still important

Screening programmes are a vital part of the fight against cancer. But not all cancers can be screened for, and screening tests are not perfect.

It’s really important to know what’s normal for you and look out for any changes. And if you notice anything unusual, make an appointment to see your doctor and have it checked out.

Even if you are screened for breast, cervical or bowel cancer, make sure you go to see your doctor if you have any symptoms that worry you.

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 25 September 2009