Finding out early is good news

Many forms of cancer are being picked up at an earlier stage than in the past. In some cases, this is down to screening programmes. That’s good news, because cancer is usually more treatable if it is found early, before it’s had the chance to grow and spread.

We’re more aware

An explosion of charity fundraising events – such as Cancer Research UK’s Race For Life and Prostate Cancer UK’s Movember – is playing a part in helping to raise awareness of potential symptoms. Thirty years ago, for example, breast cancer wasn’t widely talked about, but now men and women know more about the importance of checking for breast changes. Once you’ve spotted any changes and talked to your GP, NHS guidelines can help your GP refer you to a specialist (if you have ‘red flag’ symptoms) within two weeks.

Screening can help

It’s estimated that, since cervical screening was introduced in 1988, it has prevented up to 5,000 cervical cancer deaths each year by detecting pre-cancerous cell changes. Studies show that, without it, cervical cancer would be killing 1 in 65 British women born since 1950. Another example: if a malignant melanoma is treated when it is less than 1.5mm thick, 93% of men and 97% of women are alive at least five years later. But if a melanoma is 3.5mm thick or more before it is treated, these figures drop to 47% of men and 55% of women.

  • Cervical smears — A smear test takes a sample of cells from the cervix, which is then sent off to be examined for changes that may become cancerous. All women aged 25 to 64 can have a smear every three years on the NHS (you may choose to have a private screening more frequently) and the latest figures show 78.6% of eligible women went for smear tests in the past five years.
  • Breast screening — The NHS invites women to have a mammogram every three years from the ages of 50 to 70; this service is also being extended to those aged 47 to 73 (women over this age should make their own appointments for screening). In 2010–11, 1.88 million women were screened, with 7.8 cancers found per 1,000 women. In the past decade, the programme has grown by 45%, from 1.30 million women screened in 2000–01.
  • Bowel cancer screening — The national bowel cancer screening programme offers a postal-service screening every two years to men and women in their 60s. If blood is found, you are called in for a colonoscopy. Research has found that these kits can cut bowel cancer deaths by 27%.
  • Prostate cancer risk management — As yet, there’s no screening programme for prostate cancer. In fact, research found that a test for prostate-specific antigen (PSA) was linked with high levels of over-treatment. “While screening identifies prostate cancer, it doesn’t show who needs treatment,” says Professor Malcolm Mason, prostate cancer specialist for Cancer Research UK. “By the age of 80, 80% of men will have prostate cancer, but nothing like 80% will die from it.” However, there is a risk-management programme, which means men who notice symptoms – such as having to rush to urinate, passing urine frequently or having difficulty passing urine – can have a PSA test after a discussion with their GP.
  • Cervical cancer vaccine — Since September 2008, girls aged 12 to 13 have been vaccinated against the human papilloma virus (HPV) – a common sexually transmitted infection that’s responsible for about 70% of cases of cervical cancer. Three injections are usually given over a period of six months. These now protect against four types of HPV, and could help prevent the virus for at least six years, maybe longer.

What can you do?

According to Cancer Research UK, data from a cancer registry in the east of England reveals around 55% of patients with a common cancer are now diagnosed at a stage when the disease can be successfully treated. Some of that’s down to simply being more aware of signs there may be something not quite right. It’s important that we get to know our bodies, and talk to a GP if we see signs of change that we’re not expecting:

  • Check your breasts — According to the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, most cases of breast cancer are found by women picking up changes themselves. Feel regularly for any unusual lumpy areas and look for changes such as dimpling or rashes.
  • Scan your skin — Cancer Research UK suggests checking monthly for moles that are new, changing or growing. If you have a lot of large moles, a strong family history of melanoma, have had it in the past or were born with an unusually large mole, you should be screened regularly by a specialist.
  • Look behind you — Blood in your stools can be a telltale sign of bowel cancer (but it is more likely to have a benign cause, such as piles). Still, always check with your doctor and be aware of other signs like a change in bowel habits and unexplained weight loss.
  • Get to know your body — Then, if you notice a persistent (usually painless) lump anywhere in your body, a cough or croaky voice that lasts longer than three weeks, a sore that won’t heal and/or persistent bloating or indigestion, seek medical attention.

You can find a longer list of checks at:


Don’t forget, if you have any concerns or any questions your GP will always be happy to see you.

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