Suspected cancer patients face an agonising wait of up to two years for a diagnosis and a year to start treatment, damning figures reveal.
The ‘unacceptable’ delays could give tumours time to spread, slash survival chances and make treatment more expensive, charities warn.
The NHS should offer people a first appointment with a specialist within two weeks of receiving an urgent referral from a GP.
They should be given a diagnosis or all-clear within one month of the referral and start treatment within two months.
But new data released under Freedom of Information laws show that as of January this year, people had been waiting up to 24-times longer than they should have to be seen.
NHS figures show just 58 per cent of cancer patients started treatment within two months of an urgent GP referral. The NHS’s own rulebook sets out that at least 85 per cent of cancer patients should be seen within this timeframe but this figure has not been met since December 2015
The figures, exposed by the Labour Party, reveal the longest someone had been waiting to see a specialist after receiving an urgent referral from their GP was six months, or 171 days.
Patients had been waiting up to nine months (262 days) for a test or scan and up to two years (671 days) for a diagnosis or to have cancer ruled out.
Meanwhile, they had endured waits of more than a year (397 days) to start cancer treatment.
These patients had not finished their cancer pathway at the time the responses were sent, so they may still be waiting.
When were the national targets for cancer waiting times last met?
Target: 93% of patients should see a hospital specialist within two weeks of an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer
Last met: May 2020, and February 2019 outside of pandemic
Target: 85% of patients should start treatment for cancer within two months of an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer
Last met: December 2015
Target: 75% of patients should be diagnosed (told they have cancer, or cancer being definitively excluded) within a month of an urgent referral
Last met: Only met in one month since standard was introduced in April 2021
Sources say the extraordinary delays may have been due to ‘patient choice’ or ‘complex medically and clinically justified reasons’, rather than a lack of capacity.
Last year, 500,000 suspected cancer patients waited longer than the recommended two weeks to see a specialist after being referred by a GP.
Patients face further disruption later this month when members of the Royal College of Nursing escalate their strike action in pursuit of a higher pay deal and refuse to deliver any cancer care for the first time.
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: ‘Cancer patients in England are facing unacceptable delays for vital treatment, which demonstrates the need for urgent political leadership and action on cancer in England.
‘Years of under-funding has resulted in an overstretched cancer workforce unable to meet rising demand.
‘We urge the Government to deliver a fully-costed workforce plan for England that increases the number of clinicians being trained and tackles staff retention.
‘Only then will people affected by cancer receive the care they desperately need and deserve.’
Some 52 out of the 60 NHS trusts which responded to the FOI saw a patient wait more than half a year to start their treatment in 2022.
Across 2022, the longest waits were:
– Almost a year (350 days) to see a specialist after being urgently referred by a GP, for a patient in Lincolnshire.
– Almost two years (650 days) for a diagnosis or to have cancer ruled out for a patient in Dartford and Gravesham.
– A year and a half (469 days) to start treatment, for a patient in North Tees and Hartlepool.
The figures, exposed by the Labour Party, reveal the longest someone had been waiting to see a specialist after receiving an urgent cancer referral from their GP was six months, or 171 days
Data from NHS England shows that the number of people waiting for routine hospital treatment jumped by 10,000 in January to 7.22million, a new record
In 2021, five hospitals in England saw patients wait more than a year to start treatment, meaning their cancer was likely to have spread.
One patient at East Kent NHS trust waited almost three years (969 days) to get a cancer diagnosis or to have cancer ruled out.
The latest official figures show more than 2,000 people with cancer in England waited more than a month to start treatment following the clinical decision to do so in February.
In addition, almost 6,000 people waited more than two months to start treatment following an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer – the second lowest performance ever recorded for this target at 58.2 per cent.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said: ‘Cancer is a priority for trust leaders who know the risks to patients who have to wait.
‘The pandemic left people waiting longer than trusts wanted for diagnosis or to start treatment but now the NHS is seeing more urgent referrals for suspected cancer than ever.
‘And for the first time, the NHS has just met the faster diagnosis standard for suspected cancer, with three in four people referred receiving a definitive diagnosis or all-clear within 28 days.
‘Severe workforce shortages and lack of capacity affect cancer services just like the rest of the overstretched NHS.
‘Trusts need more staff and investment to be able to reduce delays and treat patients as quickly as possible.
‘Screening, prevention and early intervention are vital too.’
Wes Streeting, Labour’s health spokesman, said: ‘How can the Conservatives claim our public services are in good shape, when cancer patients are left waiting and wondering for months and even years, while their cancer could be spreading?
‘I know from my own experience with kidney cancer that every second counts when it comes to cancer.
‘Labour will double medical school places to train 7,500 more doctors and 10,000 more nurses a year, paid for by abolishing non-doms.
‘Cancer patients need life-saving treatment more than the wealthiest need a tax loophole. And if Rishi Sunak agrees with that, then why doesn’t he do something about it?’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the NHS has been seeing and treating record numbers of patients for cancer over the last two years.
They added: ‘Over nine in ten patients are starting cancer treatment within one month, and the number of patients waiting more than 18 months for care has fallen by more than four-fifths since the peak last September.
‘75% of patients were diagnosed with cancer, or had it ruled out, within 28 days of referral which meant NHS England’s faster diagnosis standard was reached for the first time in February 2023.
‘We know there is more to do which is why, since July 2021, we have opened 100 community diagnostic centres.
‘These one-stop-shops have carried out over 3.6 million tests, checks and scans to ensure patients get access to the best medical advice when and where they need it.’