What’s your first response when you get the ‘dreaded’ cancer screening letter through the post?
Do you shrug and ignore it? Act like you’ve been sent junk mail and toss it in the bin? Or do you pull on your brave breeches, call to get booked in and feel relieved once it’s over?
If your answer is the latter, you’re probably part of the minority in South Yorkshire who actually attends cancer screening appointments.
Often due to fear or embarrassment, fewer people in our area are going to their routine exams or are less likely to see their GP if they have concerns. Months or years later, a rising number end up travelling in desperation to A&E to be told the devastating news that they are within the later stages of cancer, often when treatment is less effective or the outlook is terminal.
In a bid to change attitudes in society, five organisations under the South Yorkshire, Bassetlaw and North Derbyshire Cancer Alliance have joined forces to spearhead a campaign to stop people being afraid to talk about cancer.
Making conversations about cancer
Be Cancer Safe is a social movement that is hoping to improve cancer survival statistics through the simple art of conversation.
Whether you’re having your haircut, attempting to get fitter in the gym or digging up potatoes on the allotment, listen out for Be Cancer Safe’s cancer champions who are doing what they do best – chatting.
Through talking and sharing stories in everyday life, these champions aren’t medical experts, just ordinary folk who are working to raise awareness and bring it home that, while anyone can be affected by cancer, treatment is easier and more successful in early diagnosis.
In Rotherham and Barnsley, the initiative is being rolled out across the various communities by Voluntary Action Rotherham. Since March, workers and volunteers have been out starting conversations and sharing messages.
Creating Cancer Champions
From chief executives to labourers, the team have met a mixture of people in everywhere from bingo halls and working men’s clubs to businesses and supermarkets to have a chat over a good cup of tea.
They are hoping to drum up a small army of micro volunteers with the aim that 1,500 cancer champions in each town, each making a small pledge to speak to ten people, will help make a big difference regionally.
Being a cancer champion can be as simple as chaperoning someone to their appointment or telling that person who is never ill to register with a GP or they won’t get their screening letters through the post.
It could be nagging a work colleague to get their latest ailment checked out. Or even reassuring younger female friends that a smear test isn’t that awful and it’s over quicker than it takes to blow dry and straighten their hair.
While it’s not very British to talk about poo, make jokes about getting a bowel cancer screening test on your birthday – where’s the candles and card, NHS?
And remember that boobs, cervixes and lady parts come in all shapes and sizes; the nurse has probably seen them all.
The secrets of screening
Be Cancer Safe is all about dispelling myths and normalising what happens to make screening more accessible for everyone in the community.
A big part of the scheme is to raise awareness of the different signs and symptoms associated with each of the five main tumour groups along with which of the three screenings, and how often, are available to you.
In South Yorkshire, more people are diagnosed with cancer than the UK average and an early detection could mean an increased chance of survival. Yet as few as 53 percent of women in Rotherham and Barnsley attend their breast screening exam and only 41 percent of our community take part in the bowel screening test.
For breast screening, a routine mammogram is offered to women aged 50 to 70 every three years which can spot cancerous lumps when they are too small to see or feel. In between appointments, it is essential to keep an eye out for any changes to shape, size and density of the breast along with any noticeable differences to the nipple such as discharge, inverting or dimpling around it.
While 90 percent of all lumps aren’t cancerous, being on top of your boob health can improve the outlook if a lump is found to be malignant.
Women are also invited to a cervical screening test, or smear, every three years between the ages of 25 and 49 and every five years between 50 and 64. Bleeding outside of your normal period or after the menopause are warning signs to look out for along with pain and discomfort during intimacy. However, the symptoms aren’t always obvious if any at all which is why screening looks for cell abnormalities.
For men, prostate cancer is the most common in the UK with 40,000 new cases each year. However, there is currently no national screening programme to detect it and men can often need a kick up the backside to see their GP about any warning signs.
Many men fear the gloved hand of a GP and put off visiting for not wanting to experience a Digital Rectal Exam. But while there is no single test to diagnose prostate cancer, you can also have a PSA blood test to check for protein levels relating to prostate issues.
The main thing to remember is P for prostate, or pee:-needing to go more frequently, especially during the night; a sudden urge to go; difficulty starting, straining or a weak flow; and your bladder not feeling empty.
These symptoms are not usually present until the cancer has grown large enough to put pressure on the urethra and as a result should not be ignored. The unpleasant doctor’s examination will last much less time than the years an early diagnosis could add onto your life.
The third screening programme in the UK is for bowel cancer and both sexes are invited to carry out an FOB (faecal occult blood) test every two years in the comfort of their own homes between the ages of 60 and 74.
While the thought of what’s involved may sound like toilet talk, the quick test can detect bowel cancer before any symptoms appear, making any cases easier to treat.
Before or in-between tests, take note of the three main symptoms:- blood in your stools for no obvious reason; a change in your bowel habits such as looser stools or going more often; and lower tummy pain, bloating or discomfort caused by eating.
Be Cancer Safe are also highlighting the importance of spotting the signs of lung cancer which is also not currently screened for.
If you have a cough that doesn’t shift after three weeks or is getting worse, are constantly plagued by chest infections or are coughing up blood, see your GP. Other symptoms may be an ache or pain when breathing, breathlessness, lack of energy or loss of appetite.
Less than an hour of your time could save your life as in the case of Rotherham lady Edna.
Cancer champion Edna, 71 from Rotherham underwent surgery for bowel cancer last December after a routine bowel screening test discovered the cancer.
Having always participated in the bowel screening programme, the 30 minute test saved Edna’s life this time round as she had been showing no symptoms.
She is now urging others not to throw the package in the bin when it lands on the doorstep and be more proactive when it comes to health. While not everyone will have a cancer diagnosis like Edna, she says even having peace of mind is worth doing the test for.
“I’m living proof of the value and importance of screening and if I had presented symptoms six months later then the outcome could have been different. Never be too busy, make time and be well and remember there is nothing to fear. To quote: ‘a bit of muck spreading is all it needs.’”
While screening is a fantastic health initiative in the UK, the Be Cancer Safe team are also urging people not to just wait for the letter to arrive in the post.
Knowing your body and what feels right or wrong for you can be a proactive way to help save your life, as Barnsley lady Barbara found out.
Barbara, 71, from Wombwell, is a breast cancer survivor and one of Be Cancer Safe’s cancer champions.
Back in December 2016, Barbara experienced a pain in her nipple and, on checking her breast, found a lump.
She was due to visit her GP that month for a routine blood test on the 12th and so tried to make an appointment whilst there to discuss the lump. To her shock, she was offered the next available appointment on 25th January – five weeks later.
A week later while collecting her test results, Barbara insisted she be examined where the nurse checking her breast referred Barbara to the hospital for further tests.
The following day, she received a phone call from the hospital asking her to attend in a further two days for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. Just after Christmas, Barbara was dealt the devastating blow that the lump was indeed an aggressive and fast developing stage three tumour.
On 18th January 2017, a week before her initial GP appointment was booked in for, the tumour was removed along with two lymph nodes. Barbara then had six months of intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy to be sure the cancer had fully gone.
Had she not recognised something was wrong in her body and insisted on being examined, the ending could have been very different.
“Don’t be fobbed off, you cannot afford to lose precious time with this disease. Women like me over 70 are not sent screening invitations but we are still at risk. You’re not wasting anyone’s time.
“I consider myself lucky to be alive and urge all women to attend breast screening, visit their GP at the first sign of symptoms and check themselves regularly. I’ve been given a second chance to enjoy my family and now want to support other women to have the confidence to do the same.”
For the Be Cancer Safe team, their main mission is hope – hope that the many wonderful cancer champions working alongside them will inspire even just a handful of people to take their health seriously so they too can hope for a better future. That would be job well done.
And remember, think SAFE
- SCREENING – Go do it!
- AWARENESS – Know the signs and symptoms
- FAST – Get to your GP
- EARLY – Improve survival
Free National Helplines
Bowel Cancer – 0800 707 60 60
Breast Cancer Care – 0808 800 6000