NHS cancer screening

Free screening for certain types of cancer is available on the NHS for some people. Find out who is invited for screening, and what to expect.

Watch a video about breast cancer screening

There are several national screening programmes. They save thousands of lives a year.

Breast cancer screening

The NHS Breast Screening Programme invites over 2 million women for screening every year, and detects over 14,000 cancers.

Dr Emma Pennery of Breast Cancer Care says: “Breast X-rays, called mammograms, can detect tumours at a very early stage, before you’d feel a lump. The earlier it’s treated, the higher the survival rate.”

Am I eligible for breast screening?

All women aged 50 to 70 are invited to attend mammograms every three years at a hospital or mobile screening unit. After the age of 70, women can make their own appointments for screening every three years.

The screening programme is extending the age range to include women aged 47 to 73. This will be gradually introduced by 2016.

“Eighty per cent of women diagnosed are over 50,” says Dr Pennery. “Mammograms are not suitable for younger breasts as the tissue is too dense.”

What does breast screening involve?

You’ll be asked to undress to the waist and each breast in turn will be placed between two X-ray plates and compressed. Two views will be taken: top to bottom and side to side. “Some women find the squashing uncomfortable, but it’s soon over,” says Dr Pennery. 

The screening staff will tell you when to expect your results. It's more than likely that your screening result will be clear. If not, you may be recalled to hospital for further assessment. “Try not to panic,” says Dr Pennery. “A recall does not necessarily mean you have cancer. It may mean doctors want to investigate further, or that the mammogram wasn’t clear enough and you need another one.”

Find out more about breast cancer.

For more advice, call Breast Cancer Care on 0808 800 6000.

Cervical cancer screening

The NHS Cervical Screening Programme screens more than 3 million women each year. Cancer Research UK scientists estimate that the programme saves more than 4,500 lives in England every year. Screening is used to detect abnormal cells on the cervix. Cervical cancer is one of the few preventable cancers, because screening picks up pre-cancerous changes. Early detection and treatment can prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers.

Some people call cervical screening a cervical smear test.

Am I eligible for cervical screening?

Women aged 25 to 49 (20 to 49 in Scotland and Wales) are invited for screening every three years. Women aged 50 to 64 are invited every five years.

Find out why cervical screening isn't offered to women under 25.

What does cervical screening involve?

The doctor or nurse will ask you to lie down on a couch. They will insert a medical instrument called a speculum into your vagina, so they can view the neck of your cervix and collect a sample of cells using a swab. They'll send the swab to the laboratory. You might feel some discomfort or pain during the procedure. If you do, tell the doctor or nurse as they may be able to lessen the discomfort.   

Make your appointment for the middle of your menstrual cycle (halfway between periods) and don't have sex for 24 hours before the test.

Cervical screening results

You'll receive your results in writing and you can ask the person taking your screening test when to expect them.

Most screening results, around 9 out of 10, do not show abnormal changes.  

Occasionally a result may be classed as inadequate, which means your sample could not be read properly.

Around 7 out of 100 cell samples are described as abnormal. There are various grades of abnormality, but it's extremely rare for an abnormal result to show that cancer has already developed. In many cases, cell changes can be left to return to normal by themselves but sometimes treatment may be necessary to prevent the abnormal cells developing.

If you have an abnormal screening result, you may be recalled early for another screening test, given a colposcopy (an examination of the cervix using a special microscope) or treatment to remove the abnormal cells.

Find out more about cervical cancer.

For advice about living with cervical cancer, contact Jo’s Trust on 0808 802 8000.

Bowel cancer

About 1 in 20 people in the UK will develop bowel cancer. It is the third most common cancer in the UK, and the second leading cause of cancer deaths. Over 16,000 people die from it each year.

The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be effective. Regular bowel cancer screening has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer by 16%.

Am I eligible for bowel cancer screening?

Men and women aged 60 to 69 (50 to 74 in Scotland and Wales) will automatically be invited for screening every two years. Most people who are diagnosed with colon cancer are over 60.

An extension to the age range, to include men and women aged from 70 to 74, is currently being rolled out in England.

People aged 70 and over can request screening if they haven't been automatically invited. If you're over 70, you can request a testing kit by calling the free helpline on 0800 707 60 60.

What does bowel cancer screening involve?

You’ll be sent a faecal occult blood (FOB) test to carry out at home and return by post. The kits are then sent off to a laboratory to be checked for hidden (occult) blood in the stools, which could indicate bowel cancer.

The test involves smearing tiny samples from three stools (bowel motions) on to a special card. You then seal the test and return it to the screening centre.

You’ll be sent a letter when your results have been processed. This will usually say your sample was normal – 98 out of 100 people have a normal result. If the result is unclear, you'll be asked to complete another test kit. If your result is abnormal, you'll be invited for further investigation.

Further investigation will usually involve a colonoscopy. This is a procedure where a thin flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end (a colonoscope) is passed into your rectum and guided around the large bowel so doctors can view your bowel lining. Only around two in every 100 people who are screened will have an abnormal result and are advised to consider a colonoscopy.

Find out more about bowel cancer.

You can contact a nurse for information on the Bowel Cancer UK advisory service: 0800 840 3540.

The pros and cons of screening

Pros:

  • Regular screening increases the chance of spotting cancer early.
  • Cervical screening can detect abnormal cells before cancer has a chance to develop.
  • “Studies show that by detecting these cancers at earlier stages, treatment results are improved and lives saved,” says Dr Rob Buckman, medical oncologist and author of Cancer is a Word, Not a Sentence.

Cons:

  • Breast or bowel screening does not in itself protect you from cancer, so it’s important to attend each time you’re invited.
  • “All screening tests sometimes yield unclear results,” says Dr Buckman.
  • Dr Buckman states: “Tests may sometimes be wrong, telling you there’s cancer when there isn’t, or vice versa. So with every screening, some people may be unduly alarmed or a few falsely reassured."

Cancer screening isn't 100% reliable, and there is a chance that cancer can be missed.

There is a chance that screening may detect cancers that otherwise would not have been found or needed treatment in that person's lifetime. This means some people may have treatment they don't need. Many more people have potentially life-saving treatment.

Make sure you know as much as possible about what's involved in cancer screening, including the benefits and the risks, so that you can make the decision that's right for you.

Breast cancer screening

See what happens during a mammogram, and the benefits of mammography and ultrasound explained.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Page last reviewed: 04/12/2013

Next review due: 04/12/2015

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