Cancer patients fear ‘getting left behind’ due to diagnosis and treatment delays

Data from NHS England revealed 257,702 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in September (Jeff Moore/PA)
Data from NHS England revealed 257,702 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in September (Jeff Moore/PA) Data from NHS England revealed 257,702 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in September (Jeff Moore/PA)

Patients waited longer to see cancer specialists to rule out or treat the disease in September, new figures from NHS England have revealed.

Experts are now calling on the Government for more investment in cancer services to ease the “worrying delays” for patients.

It comes as new data from NHS England revealed 257,702 urgent cancer referrals were made by GPs in England in September, down 4% on 267,555 in August but up 1% year-on-year from 254,455 in September 2022.

The proportion of cancer patients who saw a specialist within two weeks of being referred urgently by their GP fell from 74.8% in August to 74.0% in September, remaining below the target of 93%.Of the cancer patients who had their first treatment in September after an urgent GP referral, 59.3% had waited less than two months, down from 62.8% in August and behind the 85% target.

Meanwhile, 69.7% of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer were diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within 28 days, down from 71.6% the previous month. The target is 75%.

Jules Fielder, who is 39 and from East Sussex, has incurable cancer and relies on treatment and scans being timely.

She said: “It’s clear to see the NHS is under pressure. As a cancer patient you really want your journey to be smooth running, but these pressures are making it harder and harder for that to happen.

“A few days after my CT scans, I’ll ring up to see if my results are in. If I don’t push for it, I don’t know how long I would sit in the system before I’d get called and told my results.

“I feel like I have to fight and advocate for myself. If I didn’t, I’d get left behind. I am constantly fighting to live.”

Ms Fielder urged the Government to “understand the pressure the NHS is under, and the devastating impact delays are having on people living with cancer who feel helpless”.

“If the Government kept to their word, things could be simpler, we could have more time with the people we love and lives could be saved,” she added.

In the week to October 1, some 24,920 people had been waiting longer than 62 days since an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer, up from 23,809 in the week ending September 3.

However, most patients included in the total do not have cancer and are waiting for a diagnostic test, while around one in six do have cancer and are waiting for treatment.

The Government and NHS England set the ambition of returning this figure to pre-pandemic levels by March this year.

Minesh Patel, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said the latest figures are “disappointing”.

“These delays can have a devastating impact on people’s lives and result in a worse prognosis,” he added.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said the data highlights the “anxious waits people face for vital cancer diagnosis and treatment in England”.

“Years of missed targets have led to worrying delays for far too many people, and hard-working NHS staff continue to be let down by the UK Government’s failure to invest in cancer services.”

Publication of the latest figures come as a number of cancer targets are about to be discontinued as part of an agreement by the Government and NHS England to streamline performance standards.

The measures were confirmed in August and implemented in October, with officials saying the new guidelines will move away from the “outdated” two-week wait target and be replaced by the Faster Diagnosis Standard.

The 10 current targets will be consolidated into three:

– The 28-day Faster Diagnosis Standard, under which patients with suspected cancer urgently referred by a GP, screening programme or other route should be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within four weeks.

– The 62-day referral to treatment, to ensure patients who have been referred and diagnosed with cancer should start treatment within that timeframe.

– The 31-day decision to treat – patients with a cancer diagnosis, and who have had a decision made on their first or subsequent treatment, should start it within 31 days.

Ms Mitchell added: “The NHS is facing enormous challenges and there’s no quick, easy fix. Investment in staff, equipment and innovation is needed to diagnose and treat people with cancer sooner.”

NHS England data also revealed overall waiting lists climbed to a new record high of 7.7 million in September.

The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.