Screening aims to detect changes and find cancer as early as possible, usually before there are noticeable changes or symptoms. It is for healthy people within the population who have no symptoms that concern them. Screening programmes for breast, cervical and bowel cancers are available for people in certain age groups.   

Screening in NI 

Screening programmes are a way to detect cancer at a very early stage, when symptoms are not present.  In NI, there are 3 national screening programmes for 3 cancer types: 


The Northern Ireland Bowel Cancer Screening programme aims to detect bowel cancer before symptoms appear and when there is greatest chance of successful treatment.  

  • A bowel cancer screening kit is automatically sent to all people registered with a GP between ages 60-74 years, you will receive this in the post every 2 years. 
  • With your screening kit you will receive a booklet explaining how to complete the test. 
  • Recipients are asked to collect a small sample on a collection stick and then the kit is sent away to a screening laboratory for examination. 
  • Screening aims to detect blood in the stool before you would ever notice. If blood is present you will be invited for further tests. 
  • The presence of blood in your stool does not mean you have bowel cancer, the test and further investigation can pick up polyps, haemorrhoids and inflammation in the lining of the bowel. Polyps are clumps of cells that are not cancer but some may turn into cancer. If polyps are picked up early they can be easily removed before this happens. 
  • 8 out of 10 cases of bowel cancer are in those over 60 years of age and screening is only available in the 60-74 years age group. Those who fall outside of this age group and are concern or notice any symptoms or are of screening age and notice symptoms between tests are advised to visit their GP. 

For more information about the Northern Ireland Bowel Screening Programme visit  Bowel cancer screening | nidirect 

Or for more information about bowel cancer, see Bowel Cancer UK’s short video below:



Breast screening is for well women with no symptoms and is carried out by a breast x-ray called a mammogram. Regular screening can identify breast changes before you would see or feel any changes.  In NI, there are 2 ways to access free breast screening: 

  • The NHS offers breast screening/mammograms to women aged 50-70 years, routinely inviting women every 3 years.  

For information on the NHS breast screening programme visit – 

  • Action Cancer offers breast screening/mammograms to women aged 40-49 and over 70 years. This is a self-referral service, to book click here. 

These screening programmes are only for women who don’t have any symptoms.  If you notice any changes in your breasts before you are eligible for screening, or in the times between screening, you should contact your GP for investigation. 



In NI, women between the ages of 25 and 64 will be invited to the NHS cervical screening programme.  The cervical screening process is called a smear test. The test shows if there are any cells in the cervix that are not normal.  Cervical screening is actually capable of preventing cancer as it can detect pre-cancerous changes in cell, allowing for treatment to prevent them becoming cancerous. 

All women in the age range, who are registered with a GP, are invited to attend for a smear test at least once every three or five years. The first invitation will be sent out just prior to a woman’s 25th birthday and every three years thereafter until 49. Women from the age of 50-64, will be invited once every five years. It is very important to attend for your smear when called.  

What is a smear test?  

A smear test is a method of detecting abnormal cells on the cervix. The cervical screening test usually takes around five minutes to carry out. An instrument called a speculum will be gently inserted into your vagina to hold the walls of your vagina open so that your cervix is visible. A small soft brush will be used to take some cells from the surface of your cervix. The sample of cervical cells will then be sent to a laboratory and examined under a microscope to see whether there are any abnormal cells. It’s very quick and most women feel only slight discomfort. The results of the test will be sent to you in the post and they aim to have the results back to you in 2 weeks. 

Check out the NHS video and what happens during a cervical screening.




While screening programmes are the best way to detect certain cancers early, there are many other cancers where screening isn’t available, or you may not be eligible for the existing screening programmes.  In these cases, knowing the signs and symptoms and using self-examination can help you identify times when you should get checked out by your GP.