Less than one in five people can name the three cancers screened for by the NHS screening programme according to a Cancer Research UK survey.
More than 4,150 people took part in the study which revealed that only 16 per cent could correctly identify breast, cervical and bowel cancer as the three cancers currently screened for by the NHS.
Publication of the data comes as Cancer Research UK continues its call for the government and the NHS to further improve screening services. The charity's "Screening Matters" campaign aims to raise awareness of cancer screening and help increase uptake of the services.
Recognition among women for the breast screening programme was 94 per cent - but less than 60 per cent of women knew about cervical screening. Knowledge of bowel cancer screening was lowest with only 25 per cent of people aware of the programme.
Screening plays a vital role in improving the outcome of cancer treatment by detecting cancer early or picking up changes before cancer develops.
Breast cancer screening in England is estimated to prevent around 1,400 deaths from breast cancer yearly. Figures for the cervical screening programme in England show that around 4,500 deaths per year are prevented. Researchers have also calculated that there will be 20,000 fewer deaths from bowel cancer over the next 20 years thanks to the roll-out of the bowel cancer screening programme.
In England the number of eligible women attending cervical smear tests improved from just above 40 per cent in 1989 to 82 per cent in 1995. Recent figures show this rate has fallen to 79 per cent.
Almost 75 per cent of women aged 50 or older who were invited for breast screening accepted their invitation in the year 2005/6. Research from the bowel cancer screening programme shows that around 57 per cent of people who are sent screening kits will take part.
The Screening Matters campaigns aims to clear up any confusion about cancer screening and increase the number of people participating in screening. With more people attending screening more cancer deaths will be prevented.
Professor Stephen Duffy, Cancer Research UK's professor of screening, said: "The uncertainty around what is screened for could be from a range of reasons. Lack of knowledge of the bowel cancer screening programme may be because the programme only recently began and is not yet available across the UK. There may be confusion that what is commonly called a smear test is a cervical screening test to detect abnormal cells before they become cancerous. Whatever the reasons may be, more work needs to be done to improve the awareness and understanding of cancer screening across the UK."
The NHS breast and cervical screening programmes began in 1988. The new bowel cancer screening programme began last year. This programme is currently being rolled out across the UK inviting men and women between 60 and 69 in England with nationwide coverage being reached by 2009.
Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of health information, said: "Cancer screening saves lives but we know it could save even more. Screening is vital in detecting cancer early and also preventing it. These results highlight a worrying lack of awareness about what cancers are screened for. Our concern is that this confusion may mean that some people may not take up their invitation to take part in cancer screening. We urge everyone to go for screening when invited - it could save your life."