There are more than 200 different types of cancer that can cause many different symptoms. Knowing what is normal for your body means you are more likely to recognise new symptoms. Detecting cancer at an early stage can save lives.
Self-checks including breast and testicular self-checks are important, however research has shown that self-examination does not necessarily reduce the risk of death from breast cancer but may increase the likelihood of having a biopsy of a lump that turns out not to be cancer.
Cancer screening can save lives by finding cancers at an early age or preventing them. The UK currently has three screening programmes including a bowel cancer screening, breast cancer screening and cervical cancer screening.
The NHS does not offer PSA screening as a screening programme, however men who have concerns can speak to the doctor about it.
If patients have concerns regarding cancers there are many advanced tests that can be offered privately out of the NHS screening programme.
Every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer. Breast, prostate, lung and bowel cancer account for over half, of all new cases in the UK. Bowel cancer screening is offered in the NHS over the age of 50 in different areas of England. However, bowel cancer can be found in younger people. Bowel cancer rates are increasing in adults aged between 20 and 50. The actual numbers are relatively low, however we do not know exactly what is behind the increase in the under 50. Previous research has shown that regardless of the age a diet low in fibre and high in processed red meat, drinking alcohol and not being active can all increase it. Some research suggests that in the younger age group there may be links with certain types of bacteria and there is research exploring areas like genetics.
Tests for bowel cancer screening include testing for blood in the stool or having a colonoscopy, which involves using a scope to look inside the bowel. CT colonography is a test that uses a CT scan to check the large bowel also known as a virtual colonoscopy. It usually takes around 30 minutes and involves having an injection of contrast medium.
Possible symptoms of bowel cancer include bleeding from the back passage, blood in the stool, change in your normal bowel habit such as loose stool, opening your bowels more often, weight loss, pain in the abdomen or back passage, tiredness or breathlessness. If you notice symptoms you should seek medical advice from your GP, you may then be referred to a specialist for further tests.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK. Symptoms of breast cancer include a lump in the breast, change in the size or shape of the breast, dimpling of the skin or thickening in the breast tissue, a nipple that is inverted, rash like eczema on the nipple, discharge from the nipple or swelling or a lump in the armpit. The NHS offers breast screening for women aged over 50 to 71 years of age. However, mammograms or a breast ultrasound can be done at a much earlier age especially if there are symptoms. Private breast screening and mammography can be done in women as young as 40. If women younger than this age have any symptoms they should seek medical advice. In younger women a breast ultrasound can be performed. If any lumps are found a biopsy or a small sample of cells taken from the breast can be taken to test the tissue.
There is currently an NHS cervical screening programme, which starts from ages between 25 through to 64 for cervical screening. The aim is to pick up early cell changes that could develop into cervical cancer if left untreated. This involves having a smear test. A sample of cells is taken from the cervix. The cervix is at the lower end of the uterus and projects into the vagina. The smear test involves having a small instrument inserted into the vagina. A sample of cells is taken from the cervix using an implement like a brush. Many women fear having this test, but this is a simple test and can help detect abnormal precancerous changes, which can then be treated to stop cancer developing. The cells are checked for a high risk type of wart virus called the human papillomavirus. HPV infection causes more than 99% of cervical cancers. Therefore, if HPV is not detected you are very unlikely to have abnormal cells or develop cervical cancer. If HPV is found the cell sample will then be checked for any other abnormal changes. The appropriate treatment can then be given at this stage.
At the London General Practice there is screening available for many different types of cancer and it is best to discuss your concerns with a GP.
Dr Angela Rai