Report highlights unacceptable delays in cancer diagnosis

An estimated 280,000 new cancer cases are diagnosed per year. This Summer, NHS England pledged to create a target for diagnosis within 4 weeks following urgent referral from a GP.

If a correct cancer diagnosis is made early, while the cancer is classified as Stage 1 or Stage 2, an individual has an 80% chance of surviving at least 10 years. This chance falls to 25% if the cancer is not diagnosed until the disease has reached Stage 3 or 4.

For an affected individual and their family, late cancer diagnosis and cancer misdiagnosis generally can have severe consequences. The need for priority diagnosis prompted NHS England to set the 4-week target.

However, a recent analysis of data from Public Health England indicates that the 4-week target is not being met in some parts of the county. The research, carried out by charity Cancer Research UK, has shown that there is a wide variation in cancer diagnosis times between 25 different areas of the UK.

The information, which relates to cases from 2012 and 2013, showed that in some areas the percentage of late stage diagnoses was almost 50%, compared with others where only 40% of cancers were diagnosed late.

The worst affected areas

It is estimated that if all areas had achieved the standard set by the best NHS Trusts, 20,000 cases might have been detected earlier.

Patients in Merseyside fared worst, according to the data, with similar figures quoted for Greater Manchester, and Durham, Darlington and Tees. Cancer Research UK has argued that this variation is 'unacceptable'.

Why such disparity exists is unclear from the data. One factor may be differences in the types of cancer being diagnosed.

Reducing the rate of late cancer diagnosis

Other potential causes of the variation are being examined and measures put in place to help improve outcomes for cancer patients in the future.

Cancer Research UK is launching an early diagnosis campaign to encourage individuals with potentially cancer-related symptoms to see their GP as early as possible. The campaign aims to encourage people to perform regular checks and to notify their GP of any changes or concerns.

Cancer Research UK also intend to raise awareness among GPs. In some cases, diagnosis was delayed because the GP did not suspect cancer to be a possible cause of symptoms, and therefore did not refer the patient for tests promptly. The charity has also proposed that GPs be empowered to order cancer tests directly - instead of having to go through a hospital consultant.

NHS England's national clinical director for cancer, Sean Duffy, stated the health service was working together to 'deliver' on what was promised in the initial strategy, laid out in the Summer.

Maureen Baker, of the Royal College of GPs, added "Where our patients live should not be a factor in their health outcomes."