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Why Early Diagnosis for Cancer Is Critical

NHS introduces new targets for faster cancer diagnosis

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When diagnosed with cancer, the Princess of Wales, Kate Middleton, began treatment within days. Rightly so – because the earlier treatment begins, the more likely you are to survive, say cancer experts.

Unfortunately, those who can’t afford to go private won’t always receive as swift treatment on the NHS. The government target for starting treatment in England is within 62 days of a cancer diagnosis. For individuals whose treatment has already been agreed upon, treatment should begin within 31 days. The same time frame applies to an individual with a recurrence of cancer.

Cancer diagnosis to take just 28 days

The UK government has set new targets for cancer diagnosis. The Faster Diagnosis Standard (FDS), introduced in October 2023, states that a GP referral for suspected cancer should take no longer than 28 days.

At the same time, doctors have been urged to be more vigilant in sending patients suspected of having cancer to be diagnosed by a hospital oncologist. The independent, government-funded body Healthwatch pointed to an alarming picture for cancer referral at the GP level.

In a survey of 334 people who received a cancer referral, only around half were given this at their first appointment. That’s because, in some cases, their GP wanted to try another treatment. Other patients felt they weren’t taken seriously enough or they didn’t have enough time to explain themselves to the GP.

NHS England says that in 2023, more than two million individuals with suspected cancer were seen and received the all-clear within the 28-day time limit. They insist that technology is playing a big part in many diagnoses, with artificial intelligence and teledermatology allowing skin cancers to be diagnosed via images within mere minutes.

Every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer

And with around 1000 people diagnosed with cancer every day in the UK, it’s never been more crucial for swift diagnosis. The four most common forms of the disease are prostrate, breast, lung and bowel cancer. Testicular cancer is most common amongst young males, with prostate cancer the number one form of cancer for men aged 45 and over. The most common form of the disease amongst females, regardless of age, is breast cancer.

According to the Department of Health and Social Care, today, there are twice as many oncology staff diagnosing and treating patients compared to 2010. To cope with waiting time overload, 108 new community diagnostic centres have been opened, including for cancer. 

But it’s still not enough, says leading UK cancer charity Macmillan. They insist diagnosis and treatment delays have resulted in 100,000 lives being put at risk over the past decade. They point to the year 2014 as being the turning point – when hospitals could no longer cope with waiting lists and targets began to get missed.

The result was that the disease had spread for many people before they received a diagnosis or treatment. Many were forced to endure waiting times longer than the official target of 62 days to begin treatment – despite being referred by a GP as an ‘urgent case.’

Macmillan CEO Gemma Peters blamed the missed cancer targets for diagnosis and treatment on the failure of the NHS to keep up with a growing elderly population. She also pointed to a shortage of radiologists and nurses specialising in cancer care.

She added: “Every single person who has faced a worse outcome from their cancer diagnosis because of delays will know the devastating impact that waiting has had on their lives, from the burden of anxiety that their cancer is growing and, for many, the devastating news that their cancer is now incurable.”

More patients seek private cancer treatment

As a result of NHS waiting time delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment, more people are opting to seek private oncology treatment. They are paying for this through either health insurance, a work policy or from their savings. A total of 282,560 people paid for chemotherapy treatment in the UK using private healthcare insurance between 2018 and 2023. According to research by the Private Healthcare Information Network (PHIN), a further 13,900 individuals funded cancer treatment from their savings.

This doesn’t just mean that these individuals will be seen or treated quicker than those receiving NHS care but that they can choose where to be treated. They may be able to seek specialist cancer treatment that isn’t currently available on the NHS. For others, going private reassures them of a second medical opinion, should they wish it.

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