Northern Ireland

Cancer waiting times reaching ‘astronomical’ levels, says charity, amid more treatment delays

The latest NI Cancer waiting times statistics were published on Thursday

Figures show more delays in cancer treatments (Getty Images)

Cancer waiting times are reaching “astronomical” levels, a leading charity has said, as news figures reveal more delays in treatments.

Cancer Focus NI is calling on the executive to act on “waiting times, cancer prevention and service sustainability”.

It comes as the latest Northern Ireland cancer waiting times statistics, published on Thursday, show delays in cancer treatments across the board.

The data for patients accessing cancer services at hospitals in the north from October to December 2023, reveals of the 2,281 cancer patients who started their first definitive treatment, 89.1% started the treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat. The target is 98%.

Of the 1,076 cancer patients starting treatment following urgent GP referral for suspected cancer, 30% started treatment within 62 days of the referral, however, the target is 95%.

And of the 3,046 patients seen by a breast cancer specialist following urgent referral for breast cancer, 40.5% were seen within 14 days of the referral - the target is 100%.

The data is for patients in the Belfast, Northern, Southern and Western trusts and not the South Eastern Trust, which was excluded following the recent roll out of Encpmpass, a new electronic patient record system.

Cancer Focus NI said on an annual basis, the waiting times have been largely below target and worsening since at least 2012.

Richard Spratt, chief executive of the charity, said: “With waiting times, one of the challenges is that the incidence of cancer in our community is growing, and it is expected that cancer rates will double by 2040.

“Already, the repeated failure to meet waiting time standards – often by astronomical amounts – indicates that our current systems are not sustainable, to the detriment of our ability to deliver world-class cancer care.

“This will only get worse as cancer becomes more common.

“We need to get ahead of this problem by investing today in cancer prevention and transformation.”

Richard Spratt
Richard Spratt, chief executive of Cancer Focus NI

Mr Spratt said skin and lung cancer “represent two significant opportunities for cancer prevention”.

“This quarter, following urgent referral for suspect cancer, only 37.7% of skin cancer patients and 41.5% of lung cancer patients started their treatments within 62 days of their referral,” he said.

“Skin cancers cost £21 million each year with costs set to rise, and yet 50% of skin cancers could be prevented.”

He added: “Preventing cancer is a long-term to goal, but we need to start our interventions now if we are going to see a difference in the future, or the situation is only going to get worse as cancers become more common.

“We need action now on cancer prevention to stop the deterioration of waiting times.

“Now that our Executive and Assembly are sitting again, we can get to action on waiting times, cancer prevention, and service sustainability.

“We are glad to already see these goals coming up in debates, but conversation alone won’t make a difference.”