5 types of cancer screening we should all be aware of


NHS doctor Kiran Johal, talks about the five types of cancer screening available and why getting a health check is vital


With one in two likely to get cancer, according to Cancer Research, understandably it’s a concern for many of us.

Anyone who’s been through a cancer diagnosis - or knows someone who has – will be aware of the life-changing impact it can have on a person and on those around them.

The good news, however, is that we’re more likely to survive cancer than ever before. Stats show that 50% of people survive cancer for longer than 10 years and 38% of cancers are preventable.

One of the ways to help improve the chances of a positive outcome is to detect cancer early and start treatment as soon as possible.

Screening saves lives

"When cancer is caught at an early stage, treatment is often more effective, and the chances of successful recovery are much higher,” says Professor Kristian Helin, Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research.

"This is why speeding up cancer diagnosis can make an enormous difference to survival rates."

"It is vital that people are encouraged to come forward for checks if they have symptoms."

When it does come to getting screened for cancer, it’s helpful to know what types of screening are available, while also understanding what it is you’re walking into. We caught up with Dr Kiran Johal, a NHS doctor.

Bowel cancer screening

Cancer Research UK revealed that 1 in 15 UK males and 1 in 18 UK females will be diagnosed with bowel cancer in their lifetime, and of all cases 54% are preventable. 

A person’s risk of developing cancer depends on many facets of life, including age, genetics, and exposure to risk factors.

In 2017, 72% of bowel cancer cases were caused by lifestyle factors, whether that be smoking, drinking alcohol, too little activity, or being overweight.

The bowel cancer screening programme is open to all adults over the age of 60 in England although the ages in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland vary slightly.

Dr Kiran says, “It involves sending off a stool sample which is tested for the presence of tiny amounts of blood that may be due to cancer.”

In addition to screening programmes, spreading awareness of the signs and symptoms of various cancers is also an effective way to ensure people detect it early.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for, according to Dr Kiran:

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Excessive tiredness
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • New lumps and bumps

More specific symptoms related to certain cancers include:

  • Persistent cough (lung cancer)
  • Blood in your stools (bowel cancer)
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding (cervical cancer).

Cervical cancer screening

NHS data shows around 690 women die from the disease ever year and previous estimates suggest regular screening could prevent 83% of deaths.

Cervical cancer screening is available for women aged 25-64 every five years. As Dr Johal explains, “it involves taking a sample of cells from the neck of the womb using a small brush.”

“These cells are then tested for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which is transmitted via sexual contact and is linked to almost all cases of cervical cancer

“If the virus is present, the cells will then be tested for any cancerous changes, and you may be invited for further tests depending on these results.”

Prostate cancer screening 

In 2022, prostate cancer was the most common cancer claim among Vitality members who identify as male over the age of 50 [1]. However, there is currently no national screening programme for prostate cancer in the UK. 

While the government works on a research programme to help establish one, currently it’s up to individuals to speak to their doctor about getting checked. 

A prostate-specific antigen test – known as PSA – is the most common way to detect for prostate cancer. The test can be carried out at a GP surgery and measures the level of PSA in the blood. 

If your PSA count is high, it does not mean you have cancer – there are a number of other conditions that it could be, however, it’s advisable to get checked for prostate cancer following a high result. 

Your doctor may need to perform a rectal examination with a gloved finger to feel for any changes. You may also need a biopsy test if your PSA level is high.

This involves taking small samples of your prostate and checking for cancer. 

Skin cancer screening

Too much time sun exposure can lead to skin damage. This can vary from white or dark spots on the skin, as well as wrinkles and uneven skin texture.

In more serious cases, it can lead to skin cancer or melanoma. Vitality data shows, melanoma was the highest made cancer male claim in members under the age of 50 [2].

Meanwhile, melanoma, skin and soft tissue cancer were the second most common female cancer claim among Vitality members; only behind breast cancer [3].

It’s important to regularly check your skin and be aware of any new or existing spots, lumps or moles. One way to stay on top of any moles is to take part in mole mapping.

The process, which can be done on the NHS, is done by a medical professional who takes photos of the entire body. These can then be monitored by yourself for any changes or by a healthcare professional.

VitalityHealth members can access a Skin Analytics service if you are worried about a mark on your skin. The analysis kit is sent by post, containing a smart phone and dermoscopic (magnifying) lens to take high-resolution photos of the skin.

If further investigation is needed, a Skin Analysis GP will contact you to advise on next steps.

If you’re worried about a skin condition, seek advice from a GP or if you have Vitality health insurance you can book a virtual appointment through the Vitality GP app.

Breast cancer screening

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women aged 14 to 49, and accounts for 31% of all cancers among women. 

"This type of screening involves a mammogram, which is a special type of X-ray designed to detect small lumps in the breast before they're noticeable,” adds Dr Kiran.

All women aged between 50-71 years are invited for mammograms on a 3 yearly basis.

It’s important to note that men aren’t struck out for this cancer either, so if you feel any lumps and bumps that you’re not too sure of, make sure you’re registered to a GP and book an appointment.

Here's more information on how to check yourself for breast cancer: How to Check For Breast Cancer | Magazine | Vitality

Health checks might seem like a chore or even a bit scary, but early diagnosis of cancer can make all the difference.

Members of Vitality who have a health insurance plan can contact us straight away and be referred to our clinic. You won’t need to go through your GP first.

However, if you’re not insured with Vitality, please contact your GP as soon as possible and they can refer you to the NHS pathway should you require it.

When a member is diagnosed with cancer, Vitality Advanced Cancer Cover provides access to an array of treatments.

This will extend to treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, biological and hormone therapy, bisphosphonate treatments, as well as the latest cutting-edge treatments where clinically appropriate.

Visit vitality.co.uk or Member Zone for more information.

[1] Vitality Health and Claims Benefit Report, 2023

[2] Vitality Health and Claims Benefit Report, 2023

[3] Vitality Health and Claims Benefit Report, 2023

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