General cancer information

Cancer screening

General cancer information

Cancer screening

Not all cancers are found because someone has symptoms. Some are found during cancer screening tests.

Cancer screening is used to look for cancer in people who don’t have any symptoms. 

What is cancer screening?

The purpose of cancer screening is to find cancers before they cause symptoms. This is important because cancers found early have better outcomes.

Screening is only used for certain types of cancer where there is a test that can be used in a large number of people. These screening tests look for abnormalities that could be signs of cancer.

Screening is for people who don’t have any symptoms. If you have symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Screening programs

Screening programs are government-funded programs which offer free screening to large numbers of people.

In Australia, there are cancer screening programs for breast, bowel and cervical cancers: 

  • BreastScreen Australia
  • National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP)
  • National Cervical Screening Program.

Screening abnormalities

If an abnormality is found, this does not always mean the person has cancer. They will need further tests to find out.

What happens next will depend on the type of screening:

Breast screening – the woman will be contacted  to return for further tests. These can include a breast ultrasound, clinical breast examination and a needle biopsy. If required their GP will be notified and asked to refer them to a specialist.

Cervical screening – the GP will contact the person and refer them to a specialist for a colposcopy.

Bowel screening – the GP will refer them for further tests, including a colonoscopy. If cancer is diagnosed they will be referred to a specialist. 

Screening in high risk groups

Some people have a higher than normal risk of getting certain cancers. These people may need different types of screening.

If you have a strong family history of cancer, or an abnormal gene that increases your risk of cancer, talk to your doctor about what screening you should do.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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