Cancer screening uses tests to find people who may:
- have cancer – so it can be treated early and effectively
- need treatment or monitoring – to prevent cancer developing.
- Diagnosing cancer early can mean treatment is more effective and less complex. The earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the better your chance of survival and being cured.
The UK has 3 cancer screening programmes. You can have regular screening tests to help find breast or colorectal cancer early, before you notice symptoms. There is also regular screening to prevent cervical cancer. This looks at the cervix for changes that could become cancer if not treated.
Screening is a personal choice. A screening programme is only offered if there is evidence to show that most people will benefit from it.
Although no test is 100% accurate for a screening programme to work it must have a test that is good enough. The programme also needs to show that it can stop people dying from cancer.
To help you to decide whether to have screening, you will be given information about:
- what the screening test involves
- the different benefits and risks of having screening.
It is important to understand this so that you can make an informed decision.
Possible benefits of screening
- Screening may help find cancer early, which improves your chance of survival.
- When cancer is diagnosed early, you may need less treatment.
- Screening may help prevent cancer developing by finding cell changes that would become cancer if left untreated.
Possible risks of screening
- The screening test may suggest you have cancer when you do not. This is called a false positive result. It may make you feel very anxious.
- You may need further tests that have possible side effects.
- The screening test may not find a cancer that is already there. This is called a false negative result.
- Screening may find a cancer that might never have caused you any problems or shortened your life.
If you have a family history of cancer
A family history of certain cancers may mean you have a higher risk of developing cancer. If you are worried about your family history, talk to your GP about it. You may be referred to a genetics clinic to have your individual risk worked out. Depending on your risk, you may be advised to start screening at a younger age.
Breast cancer screening uses a low-does x-ray of the breast called a mammogram
s. A mammogram is a way of finding signs of early breast cancers that are too small to see or feel. It does not prevent breast cancer, but it does reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer each year. When breast cancer is diagnosed early, your treatment is more likely to be effective and you may need less treatment.
If you have possible symptoms of breast cancer, make an appointment with your GP. Do not wait for a breast screening invite.
Who can have breast screening?
Breast screening is offered to anyone who is registered as female with their GP, and aged between 50 and 70. If you are over 70, you can self-refer through your GP.
If you are transgender (trans) or non-binary, talk to your GP or practice nurse about breast screening. The NHS breast screening programme only automatically invites people who are registered as female with their GP. Your GP can contact them and arrange for you to be invited for screening.
We have more information for trans and non-binary people. It includes information about having tests and treatment, and getting support.
You can find out more about breast screening and making decisions on the following websites:
- GOV.UK – Breast screening: Helping women decide
- NHS – How to decide if you want breast screening
- NHS Inform (Scotland) – Breast screening.
Your local breast screening unit
You can find out more about your local breast screening units:
If you have a strong family history of breast cancer
If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, you may be offered regular breast screening when you are under the age of 50. We have more information about breast screening if you have a family history of breast cancer.
Cervical screening is a way of preventing cervical cancer (cancer of the cervix). The main risk factor for cervical cancer is an infection called the human papilloma virus (HPV).
Cervical screening uses tests to find if there is HPV or abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. It is very important to have screening, even if you have had a vaccine to help prevent HPV infection.
The first part of cervical screening is to have a smear test. This is also called the cervical screening test.
Who can have cervical screening?
Cervical screening is offered to anyone who is registered as female with their GP, and aged between 25 and 64.
If you are a transgender (trans) man or non-binary person and have a cervix, you should have screening too. The NHS cervical screening programme only automatically invites people who are registered as female with their GP. Your GP can arrange for you to be invited for screening.
We have more information for trans and non-binary people. It includes information about having tests and treatment and getting support.
You will usually be offered a smear test every 3 to 5 years.
At the moment, how often you are invited for a smear test depends on which country in the UK you live in. It is always best to check for the most up-to-date information in your area. You can find out more from:
We have more detailed information on cervical screening.
If you have any questions about your cervical screening invites, you could also talk to your GP, practice nurse or local sexual health service.
Booklets and resources
Bowel screening aims to find bowel cancer early, before symptoms develop. This can make it easier to treat and to cure.
If you have bowel cancer symptoms that continue for 3 weeks or more, talk to your GP. Do not wait for a bowel screening invite.
Who can have bowel cancer screening?
If you are registered with a GP, you will be offered your first home screening bowel test when you are aged between 50 and 60. The exact age depends on which UK country you live in. The screening programmes are based on research in each country and reflect the different needs of the populations.
You can read more about:
- bowel cancer screening in England and Wales
- bowel cancer screening in Scotland
- bowel cancer screening in Northern Ireland.
The home test kit
The test comes as a home screening kit. You will be sent a kit in the post, with clear instructions on how to use it. You use the kit to collect a small sample of your poo (stools) and send it back in a pre-paid envelope. The sample is checked in a laboratory for tiny amounts of blood.
Bowel screening for people with a higher risk
A very small number of bowel cancers are due to an inherited bowel cancer gene. People with a higher risk of bowel cancer may be offered screening at a younger age. This is usually a test called a colonoscopy that looks at the inside lining of the bowel.
There is not enough evidence that screening everyone in a certain age range for other cancers would benefit most people. But researchers are always looking for new screening tests and new ways to find cancers at an early stage.
There is ongoing research into screening for different cancers, including prostate cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer. There is no national screening programme for these cancers. There is not a reliable enough test that reduces deaths from these cancers, or where the benefits outweigh possible harms.
You can read more about why there is currently no national screening programme for prostate cancer in our information about the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test. This is a blood test that may help diagnose prostate cancer.
If you have possible symptoms or risk factors for prostate cancer, talk to your GP about the PSA test.
If you are Black or have a family history of prostate cancer, you have a higher risk of developing prostate cancer and at a younger age. You can talk to your GP about when you should have the PSA test. Prostate cancer UK provides specific information about risk for Black men, and about family history.
If you have a strong family history of ovarian cancer, talk to your GP. They may refer you to a genetics clinic to be assessed. Depending on your risk, regular screening tests may be an option.
Although there is no screening programme for lung cancer, people who have smoked and are at a higher risk may be invited for lung health checks. Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation has more information on lung health checks.
Cancer Research UK supports the national screening programmes for breast, bowel and cervical cancer. They have information about screening for other cancers, and why they do not recommend national screening programmes for these cancers.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our cancer screening information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Breast screening: programme overview. Available from www.gov.uk/guidance/breast-screening-programme-overview (accessed March 2022)
Bowel cancer screening: programme overview. Available from www.gov.uk/guidance/bowel-cancer-screening-programme-overview (accessed March 2022)
Healthcare Improvement Scotland - Breast Screening Services Standards. Available from www.healthcareimprovementscotland.org/our_work/standards_and_guidelines/stnds/breast_screening_standards.aspx (accessed March 2022)
Screening | NHS inform. Available from www.nhsinform.scot/healthy-living/screening (accessed March 2022)
Our policy on other screening programmes. Available from www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-us/we-develop-policy/our-policy-on-early-diagnosis/our-policy-on-screening/our-policy-on-other-screening-programmes (accessed April 2022)
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.
The language we use
We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.
We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:
- use plain English
- explain medical words
- use short sentences
- use illustrations to explain text
- structure the information clearly
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We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.
You can read more about how we produce our information here.
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