Sarah Says

Dr. Sarah Jarvis' health & wellness blog on Patient.co.uk

Why screening matters

Without screening, cervical cancer is a killer.
We've all done it - picked up a letter from the doormat and promised ourselves we'll get round to dealing with it. But all too many of us put off replying to those secretly unwanted letters until the 'due date' has passed. Here's where I get to make myself really unpopular by stating the obvious - health screening is designed to save your life.

It may not be fun - but if it wasn't worth it, the NHS wouldn't recommend it. Yet every year I get hundreds of notifications of 'DNAs' - Did Not Attends.

Cervical screening

There is good news about getting more mature! Cervical screening (going for regular cervical smears) is enormously important to stop you from getting cancer of the cervix (the neck of the womb). The UK is a world leader in cervical screening, and it shows. To put it into perspective: in the first ten years after the national programme of cervical screening was introduced in the UK in 1988, the number of women who developed cervical cancer fell by a spectacular 42%.

Without screening, cervical cancer is a killer - cervical screening saves about 4,500 lives a year in England alone. But as you get older, your chances drop, and by the age of 65, you won't need smear tests any more. Who said getting older was all bad news?

Colon cancer screening

This is quite a new initiative, which is still being rolled out across the country . Within the next few years, everyone from the age of 60-69 will get an invitation. The screening involves taking a tiny sample of stool and sending it off, looking for blood in the stool, which is invisible to the naked eye. Most will be normal. If not, you'll be invited to get further tests which could rule out cancer of the colon. At worst, the test may pick up early changes which can be successfully treated.

Cholesterol testing

Heart disease is the single biggest killer in the UK - for women as well as for men . If you've reached the age of 40, you should be invited for a cholesterol test at least once. If it's normal, your GP should be able to reassure you that you have little to worry about - as long as you look after your diet, weight and lifestyle - for years to come.

Blood pressure checks

As you get older your blood pressure tends to go up. This doesn't make you feel ill - but it does increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. Having your blood pressure checked takes only a couple of minutes - your GP or practice nurse can advise you when it needs to be repeated.

Breast cancer checks

One of the best checks for early, symptomless breast cancer is a mammogram. If you're between the ages of 50 and 70, you'll be routinely invited for a check every three years . Don't forget - early diagnosis doesn't mean longer to worry, it means better chances of successful cure.

Why are we so scared of screening?

Everyone hates bad news. I've lost count of the number of women who tell me they'd 'rather not know'.

But where cancer is concerned, you're bound to know some time .Cancer doesn't just go away on its own. And finding out early can make all the difference between successful treatment and disaster.

What's more, many tests can pick up changes that haven't yet developed into cancer at all. For instance, cervical smears don't just pick up cancer. They pick up changes that might turn into cancer if they aren't followed up or treated.

Blood pressure and raised cholesterol, too, can be easily treated. You may have to adjust your diet; you may have to take tablets. But isn't that a small price to pay for peace of mind?

Many of the early changes that screening uncovers are easily treatable - you just have to say 'yes'.

Posted by Dr Sarah Jarvis
Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.