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Screening Matters: One test could save your life

Screening Matters aims to raise awareness of early detection of cancer. Health correspondent Claire Regan looks at how screening can save lives - but is being ignored by thousands of women

The devastating diagnosis of breast cancer is one delivered to around 1,100 women in Northern Ireland each year. A woman's survival chances depends on many factors - not least the progression of the disease at the time of detection.

Around 300 women will die each year - underlining the reality that breast cancer is the biggest cancer killer of women in Northern Ireland.

Cancer Research UK, which has launched a Screening Matters campaign in partnership with the Belfast Telegraph, is calling on the Government to screen 80,000 more people here each year. It hopes to reach women who are eligible for screening but not yet taking part.

Screening involves examining groups of healthy people to look for the early signs of some cancers. This can help doctors find these cancers early, or even before they develop - making treatment simpler and more likely to be successful.

There are three routine cancer screening programmes in the UK - breast, cervical and bowel - but only two are available in Northern Ireland.

Women aged 25 to 64 are screened for cervical cancer through smear testing while women aged 50 to 64 are offered mammograms. Bowel cancer screening has not yet been rolled out here despite the fact that it is among the most commonly diagnosed cancers.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month began on Monday and so the campaign has focused first of all on the issues surrounding breast screening .

The Government's Breast Cancer Screening Programme covers the whole of Northern Ireland, involving staff from GP surgeries, health centres, hospital-based breast screening units and the Regional Screening Office.

Women between the ages of 50 and 64 are eligible for a free mammogram every three years. Women aged over 65 are not automatically called for screening but can ask for an appointment.

But there are still large numbers ignoring an invitation which could ultimately save their life.

The Eastern Board has the lowest up-take of screening invitations with 31.5% of eligible women not attending. That is compared to 17.2% in the Northern Board, 23.6% in the Southern and 21.2% in the Western. Overall, almost a quarter called for breast screening in a year do not take up the offer - 12,500 women.

Dr Anna Gavin, director of the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, also highlighted the importance of screening with the publication of her Survival of Cancer Patients in Northern Ireland: 1993-2004 report today.

" People are reluctant to bother their GP and so often neglect the early signs of cancer: a lump, change in bowel habit, weight loss, a sore which does not heal, a cough which does not clear up, unusual bleeding or pain.

" These may indicate an early cancer and a simple check up could save a person's life. Breast and cervical cancers may be picked up early by screening and so women invited for such programmes should attend."

The same report showed that while incidence rates of breast cancer has risen since 1994, the death rate has fallen. There are other reasons to be hopeful. Breast cancer survival rates have been improving. In the 1970s, around five out of 10 breast cancer patients survived beyond five years. Now it's eight out of 10.

And breast cancer survival rates are better the earlier the cancer is diagnosed. Therefore, increasing the number of women who participate in breast screening is vital in reducing the number of woman dying from breast cancer. There is an onus on the Department of Health to reach out to women and find out why they are not taking up an offer.

But woman must be responsible for looking after their own health by making regular checks of their breasts and in taking up invitations for smear testing and mammograms.

Dundonald woman Enid Davidson is an example of why screening matters. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 after a routine mammogram. She had "no lump, no pain" to suggest anything was wrong and almost didn't go for the screening because it clashed with a beauty salon appointment.

"If I had not done so, my cancer may have been discovered too late," she said.

Belfast Telegraph

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