What Screening Do You Need?

How do you know if you have an increased risk of a certain disease or condition? A screening test can check if evidently healthy people need further tests or treatment. Health writer Eleanor Tucker went to find out more.

As long as you are registered with a GP, you’ll automatically be invited to the NHS screening tests that are relevant to you. Just because a test is relevant, you don’t have to go, but it’s recommended as screening might mean that a condition or illness is detected earlier, making it easier to treat. As Dr Hilary Dobson, Clinical Director of West of Scotland Breast Screening, explains, “There’s a number of cancer screening programmes in place to help detect early signs of the disease. By participating in screening for breast, bowel and cervical cancer, you have a greater chance of surviving, as a wider and better range of treatments are available when cancer is detected early.” Here are the most popular tests available – more details of NHS programmes are available at http://www.nhs.uk

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Breast Cancer Screening

It’s estimated that breast cancer screenings save 1,300 lives a year in the UK. Women aged 50 to 70 who are registered with a GP are automatically invited for screening every three years, and the NHS has extended the the breast screening age range in England for women aged from 47 to 73. The screening takes place at a special clinic or mobile breast screening unit, and is in the form of an X-ray that can be uncomfortable or even slightly painful. “Screen-detected breast cancers have risen by over 50% in recent years”, Dr Hilary Dobson expains, “and more women are now surviving breast cancer than ever before”. 

Read more about breast cancer

Cervical Cancer Screening

All women aged between 25 and 64 are invited for cervical screening – or a ‘smear test’ as it is more commonly known. Up until the age of 49 it’s every three years, and later every five years. It’s not a test for cancer; it’s to find out if there are any abnormal cells in the cervix, which can then be investigated further. The test is usually carried out at your GP surgery by the practise nurse. It takes five minutes and is, although uncomfortable, not painful. It’s worth remembering that early detection and treatment can prevent up to 75% of cervical cancers.

Bowel Cancer Screening

“Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK but often there are very few recognisable symptoms”, says Dr Hilary Dobson. “The simple home screening test for all men and women aged 60 and over is the best way to detect signs of blood hidden in your bowel movements long before you or your doctor might notice them. The test can be done in the privacy of your own home and those eligible are asked to participate every two years, to check for any changes”. The kit arrives in the post when screening is due and is used to collect tiny stool samples on a sprecial card. The card is then sealed in a special hygenic envelope and sent to a laboratory. Results are sent out in the post within two weeks. 

Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA) Screening

An abdominal aortic aneurysm is a bulge in a blood vessel in the abdomen. In most cases, an AAA produces no symptoms and doesn’t pose a serious thread to health, but there’s a risk that a larger aneurysm could burst, which is usually fatal. In 2009, the NHS launched a screening programme to offer all men who are 65 years old or over an ultrasound scan for aortic aneurysms. 

Antenatal Screening

Unborn babies need a lot of screening to make sure they are developing properly, which is why the NHS antenatal screening programme is so rigorous. The tests include examinations for Down’s syndrome, foetal abnormalities and some infectious diseases; most of them take place with a midwife at the GP surgery.

Going private?

  • If you’re thinking of going private, remember that if you have a concern about your health, it’s best to talk to your GP first.
  • Find out if the test you want is on the NHS – it might not have been offered to you. 
  • Check that the screening company is properly regulated – find out more Care Quality Commission (www. cqc. org.uk).
  • Find out what the cost of your test includes, and if there are any hidden charges.
  • If the test you have picks up a problem, is there a treatment available? If the answer is ‘no’, you might prefer not to have it at all. 
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