How much do you know about raising cancer awareness?

The important point about cancer awareness and cancer screening is the need to detect cancer earlier so that more lives can be saved.

Cancer is the second biggest killer in England. The UK’s five year survival rates are lower than the average across Europe, so improving early cancer diagnosis is a key priority.

Screening does not reduce the risk of developing cancer, nor does it definitively diagnose cancer, but it looks for the presence or absence of a disorder in an otherwise healthy person.

Community pharmacists have an important role in both raising cancer awareness and referral for cancer screening, and it is important to understand the differences between these two elements. LPCs have already developed or are planning cancer awareness or screening referral services and CPPE have a supporting workshop and distance learning programme.

Cancer awareness involves an understanding of the risk factors and symptoms for each cancer type so that, as a pharmacist, you can signpost or refer patients who may be at risk or who may have symptoms as early as possible. This might be through routine conversations with customers, via a public health campaign, or as part of a local or national initiative, such as the Lung Cancer Awareness campaigns held in November each year.

Cancer screening focuses on local or national screening services to which patients or customers can be referred by a healthcare professional, or to which they can self-refer. There are currently three NHS cancer screening programmes which look at breast, bowel and cervical cancer. In addition, there is an ‘informed choice’ programme for prostate cancer. Local screening services might include a mobile screening unit or it could be a service commissioned locally for healthcare professionals such as pharmacists to refer customers to.

Good communication skills are vital for initial conversations around such sensitive topics

In November 2018, NHS England announced that Professor Sir Mike Richards will lead a major overhaul of national cancer screening programmes as part of a renewed drive to improve care and save lives. It is due to be published in summer 2019.

Ask yourself how confident you are in helping patients to identify symptoms of specific cancers. Good communication skills are vital for initial conversations around such sensitive topics and when speaking to people to identify barriers that they may have or to help them spot symptoms of cancer and encouraging them to visit their GP.

Cancer Research UK states that as many people now survive cancer as die from it and 4 in 10 cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes. But worrying statistics such as a projected 80,000 additional new cases of cancer by 2030 and 15,400 new cases of melanoma skin cancer in 2014 make it a key area of development for targeted public health campaigns and Healthy Living Pharmacies which may have different priorities depending on location. The range of topics to cover may be breast cancer, colorectal (bowel) cancer, lung cancer, female cancers (ovarian and cervical), skin cancer, oesophageal and stomach cancer, or bladder and kidney (renal) cancer.

It is important for community pharmacists to be able to identify and engage people who may benefit from a public health campaign which helps to reduce the risk of cancer, and to know where to locate useful resources to support it.

Explaining the benefits of earlier detection of cancers is also important, through recognising common signs and symptoms of seven key cancer types and signposting customers to resources and organisations designed to support the early detection, diagnosis and examination of these key cancer types.

With this in mind community pharmacists should be aware of the follow-up and referral procedures to local primary and secondary care specialists, and to national NHS screening programmes as part of the primary healthcare team. Look out for what is happening in your area to help you achieve this.

Further resources

Cancer Research UK
CPPE learning resources 
Cancer screening programmes


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