The National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) has revealed how the general public don’t fully understand the purpose of each of the UK national cancer screening programmes.
It was reported at the NCRI Cancer Conference in Liverpool that according to research, many people are unaware that some screening aims to prevent cancer, rather than identify it.
There are three national cancer screening programmes available to the general population in the UK:
The Breast Screening Programme is offered by the NHS every three years to all women aged between 50 and 70 who are registered with a GP. Screening involves an x-ray test known as a mammogram that aims to provide early detection of breast cancers which are too small to see or feel.
All women aged 24 to 64 registered with a GP in England are invited to take part in the NHS cervical screening programme every three years. Women aged 50 to 64 receive invitations every five years. This screening programme isn’t a test for cancer, but a test to detect abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix which have the potential to become cancerous. The detection and removal of cells means that the development of cancer can be prevented.
The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme is offered to men and women aged 60-74, every two years. Patients receive a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) kit in the post and are able to carry out the process at home and forward a sample to the lab for screening. Results are then provided within two weeks and any abnormalities lead to a referral for further investigations.
Bowel Scope is a newly introduced screening programme in which those aged 55 are offered a ‘one-off’ test whereby polyps (small bowel growths) are detected and removed before they become cancerous. The technical name for this procedure is Flexible Sigmoidoscopy (FS) and unlike FOBT, which enables early detections of cancer, it is primarily a preventative measure.
Researchers from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London presented their findings at the NCRI Cancer Conference from a population-based, face-to-face interview with 1,464 adults in or around the screening age (50-70 years) across the UK.
The results of this survey showed that, when asked what they believed the primary aim of each of the screening programmes to be:
- There was no indication that people were aware of any differences between the screening tests;
- 78 per cent of women knew that breast screening was aimed at detecting cancer early;
- Only 19 per cent of women knew that cervical screening was aimed at preventing cancer, with 72 per cent of women believing screening was aimed at detecting cancer;
- Awareness of the preventative aims of the cervical screening test was not associated with age, social class or previous experience (suggesting that a poor level of knowledge is universal);
- 72 per cent of participants knew that FOBT was aimed at the early detection of cancer, but –
- 70 per cent of participants were incorrect in thinking that FS was aimed at early detection.
Professor Charles Swanton, chair of the 2015 NCRI Cancer Conference suggested that there may be several reasons for the widespread misconceptions surrounding cancer screening, including the recent focus of the media on breast screening alone, which is a measure aimed at detecting cancer.
Swanton added that “along with the misconceptions over the primary focus of each of the programmes, we also know that many people are unaware that screening is aimed at healthy people who don’t have symptoms.” He suggested that further research into the misunderstanding is essential in order to ensure more people are fully informed and take part in the programmes.
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