Northern Ireland

‘Politicians. What are you waiting for?’ – Cancer charities demand Stormont return over growing waiting lists

Health charities in Northern Ireland have said the latest cancer waiting times in Northern Ireland are the worst on record.
Research from Macmillan Cancer Support has estimated that 2,700 cancer patients in Northern Ireland could add another six months to their lives if targets for waiting times were met. Several other health charities have also called for the urgent return of Stormont and implementation of a cancer strategy.

A cancer charity has said that around 2,700 people in Northern Ireland could have an extra six months added to their lives if waiting times were improved.

Macmillan Cancer Support made the claim as the Department of Health released the latest figures on cancer waiting times for between July and September last year.

Several other charities have also added to calls for Stormont to return urgently and fully implement a published cancer strategy.

Out of 2,773 cancer patients who started their first definitive treatment, 87.9% (against a target of 98%) started treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat.

Of 1,357 patients starting treatment following urgent GP referral for suspected cancer, 34% (against a target of 95%) started treatment within 62 days – said to be the worst on record. Around half (52.9%) of 3,323 patients seen by a breast cancer specialist following an urgent referral were seen within 14 days, far below the target of 100%.

Research from Macmillan has said that if the 62 day target was met in Northern Ireland was met by December 2026, around 2,700 people diagnosed with cancer over the next five years would survive at least an extra six months.

Sarah Christie, Macmillan’s policy and public affairs manager, said: “The situation for people with cancer in Northern Ireland is nothing short of heart-breaking.”

With staff stretched to breaking point, she said the lack of a Stormont Executive had caused “immense fractures in our health service and people living with cancer are paying the price”.

“This is categorically unacceptable and entirely avoidable; it doesn’t have to be this way.”

She added: “Politicians, what are you waiting for? You have a Cancer Strategy ready and waiting to go – we now need you to get back to work to fund and implement this plan. By investing in this, you are investing in the future of people living with cancer in Northern Ireland.”

Cancer Focus Northern Ireland said the latest figures showed continued delays in cancer treatments across the board.

They agreed that the figures for the 62 target were “particularly worrisome,” representing significant delays for diagnosis and treatment for almost two-thirds of those with urgent cancer referrals.

Sarah Christie, Macmillan Policy and Public Affairs manager
Sarah Christie, Macmillan Policy and Public Affairs manager.

Richard Spratt, Chief Executive of Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, said the delays were endangering patients.

“These figures are the latest in a series of concerning waiting times. On an annualised basis, none of the waiting time targets have been met since at least 2012.

“We have these targets to help ensure that cancer patients get timely diagnoses and treatments to address their cancers as soon as possible.”

He added: “It is real people behind these statistics, and we have approximately 37 people being told they have cancer every day in Northern Ireland. It is important that they can trust prompt treatment as cancer concerns arise.”

Cancer Focus also say that delays in pre-emptive care is stopping more cancers from being caught earlier – with a quarter of cancer diagnosis made after people present at A&E when their condition is already at an advanced stage.

Kathy McAllister, a Stage Three bowel cancer patient and cancer rehab specialist from Lisburn, said she recently had to spend six months trying to get a routine post-cancer checkup, even though she was experiencing new symptoms.

She said the anxiety the delays caused were a heavy burden for cancer patients and their loved ones.

“It is a wait to know if you will get a diagnosis, if you can get treatment, how that treatment will affect you, if you will live or die,” she said.

“Time is running out for cancer patients. When will we finally do something about these delays?”

Calling for Stormont’s return, Mr Spratt added: “It is beyond time we unblock decision making and implement the identified solutions to make care delivery more effective and efficient.

“The lives of the almost 14,000 people diagnosed with cancer each year in NI depend on it.”