Northern Ireland

Red flag referral and screening routes shown to have better cancer survival rates

“Routes to Diagnosis” shows a strong relationship between a patient’s route to diagnosis and how advanced their cancer was

Scientists have found a way to screen potent cancer-killing immune cells from donor blood and multiply them.
The report shows a strong relationship between a patient’s route to diagnosis and how advanced their cancer was at diagnosis

Red flag referral or screening routes provided patients with earlier cancer diagnosis and better survival rates, a new report has found.

The study from the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry (NICR) at Queen’s University Belfast used research conducted on patients diagnosed between 2018 to 2020.

Diagnosis following a suspected cancer referral for the four most common cancer types ranged from 47.6% of female breast cancer patients and 47.5% of prostate cancer patients to 33.6% of colorectal cancer patients and 21.3% of lung cancer patients.

Discovery following an emergency admission ranged from 40.8% for lung cancer patients and 27.9% for colorectal cancer patients to 8.0% of prostate cancer patients and 4.0% of female breast cancer patients.

One-year survival was 87% for cases identified via red-flag or a suspected cancer referral compared to only 42% for those following emergency presentation.

Survival ranged from 33% for those diagnosed via an emergency presentation route to 80% for a red-flag referral two years on.

Researchers also found a higher proportion of older patients and those from more deprived areas were diagnosed following emergency presentation.

Dr Damien Bennett, Director of the NICR said: “Continued support and development of cancer screening programmes, encouragement of cancer awareness among the public and efforts to reduce emergency presentations will help increase cancers diagnosed via screening and red flag referral routes.

“For three decades we have been developing cancer data supporting health outcomes in Northern Ireland and today’s Routes to Diagnosis report shows the need for continued investment to helps us better understand cancer outcomes and enables us to inform policies that will positively impact cancer patients in the future.”

The screening route to diagnosis only applies to certain cancers and age groups. For these groups: 50.9% of female breast cancer patients aged 50 to 70, 42.6% of cervical cancer patients aged 25 to 64 and 21.4% of colorectal cancer patients aged 60 to 74 were diagnosed via the screening route.

Over 98% are alive one year following diagnosis via screening.

There was also a strong relationship between route to diagnosis and stage at diagnosis with the proportion of cancer cases diagnosed via a red-flag referral 35.6% among stage I cancers compared to 26.8% among stage IV cancers.

The proportions diagnosed via a screening referral were 11.9% and 0.4% for stage I and stage IV cancers respectively, while an emergency presentation was the route taken in 6.6% of cases diagnosed at stage I and 42.9% of cases diagnosed at stage IV.

The large variation in emergency route to diagnosis by stage was apparent for most cancer types.

Health Minister Mike Nesbitt said it was essential to prioritise investment in such important work and other priority activities identified through the Northern Ireland Cancer Strategy.

“This will ensure that these important activities can continue to deliver improved outcomes for cancer patients and those families impacted by such a diagnosis,” he said.