Cancer screening is meant for healthy people with no symptoms at all. Screening looks for early signs that could indicate cancer is developing. It can help spot cancers at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful and the chances of survival are much better. In some cases, it can even prevent cancers from developing at all, by picking up early changes that can then be treated to stop them turning into cancer. Cervical screening is the best example of this.
If you have noticed an unusual change in your body that doesn’t go away, or you have noticed something that could be a sign of cancer, please see your family doctor without any delay. This is important even if you have recently had screening, or if you will be having screening soon.
Some people may have a higher risk of certain cancers, perhaps because of a strong family history. Their doctors may recommend they have some extra tests that are different to screening for the general population.
We know that cancer screening saves thousands of lives each year.
Screening can detect cancer at an early stage. If cancer is picked up early, it means that treatments are more likely to work and more people survive.
Some screening programmes can also prevent cancer. The cervical screening programme, as well as the new Bowel Scope test, can detect abnormal changes before they can turn into cancer. Treating these early changes can prevent cancer from developing.
Screening is not perfect, and it can miss cancers. How often this happens varies for different types of screening test. That’s why it is still important to know your body and see your doctor about any unusual changes, even if you have had screening.
Screening can also mean people have to come back for more tests and then find out they don’t have cancer. If this happens, you might feel very anxious.
Sometimes, screening can pick up cancers that would not grow at all, or be very slow growing, and the person may never even know they had it. This is called overdiagnosis. It means that people can get a diagnosis of cancer, and have to go through lots of treatments, that they didn’t really need. But doctors can’t tell which cancers need treating and which don’t, so they offer treatment to everyone diagnosed with cancer. This is a particular problem with prostate cancer screening.
Sometimes, the tests themselves can have risks or side effects, like bleeding, pain, or infections.
Screening programmes can save lives from cancer. However, not all cancers can be screened for, and screening tests are not perfect.
Knowing your body and what’s normal for you can help you to notice any unusual changes that could be signs of cancer. Even if you have been screened for breast, cervical or bowel cancer, if you notice any unusual or persistent changes in your body, it’s is important that you go and see your doctor.