radiotherapy centre - radiotherapy initiation

Long Cancer Waiting Times Increase The Risk Of Spreading

The importance of getting an early cancer diagnosis has been made public for years, encouraging people to get checked out by their doctor as soon as they become suspicious of a lump or any changes in their body. 

NHS missing cancer services targets 

Despite this, waiting lists for diagnosis and treatment are still long, with the NHS frequently missing their own targets. This means lots of individuals are not being treated early enough to have the desired results. 

Therefore, they are at a greater risk of the cancer developing and spreading around their body, making it harder to cure. 

According to the latest results on NHS cancer services, it only just met its target for a faster diagnosis standard. Its goal is for 75 per cent of patients to be diagnosed or have cancer ruled out within 28 days of an urgent referral.

However, it only just made this, with 78.1 per cent either being given a diagnosis or being told their symptoms are not due to cancer in the one-month period. This is the first time it has met its target after it was first introduced in October 2021. 

NHS England also has a goal that 85 per cent of patients should begin their first treatment within two months of being given an urgent referral. However, in February 2024, this was the case for only 63.9 per cent of people.

What’s more, 91.1 per cent of cancer patients began treatment one month after their doctors created a plan for them. While this figure is high, it is lower than the 96 per cent goal. 

Executive director of policy at Cancer Research UK Dr Ian Walker said: “Behind missed targets are patients – friends, family and loved ones who are facing unacceptable long and anxious waits to find out if they have cancer and when they can begin treatment.”

He noted that the NHS “does not have enough equipment or staff to see, test and treat everyone in time”. 

What difference does a few weeks make?

For patients who have to wait weeks to find out whether they have cancer, and how severe it is, any delay can feel unbearable. 

It can also have a significant impact on their long-term health, as failure to start treatment as soon as possible can mean the difference between eradicating the cancer entirely and slowing down its spread. 

One study, published in the British Medical Journal, reported that a four-week delay of cancer treatment was linked with a higher risk of mortality for seven types of cancer, including bladder, breast, colon, head and neck, and lung cancer.

Just waiting an extra month before starting treatment can increase the risk of dying from the cancer by six to eight per cent. 

Increase in demand on cancer services

While NHS England is already crumbling under the weight of cancer referrals, this problem is only set to get worse. A recent report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer together with the World Health Organisation predicted that cancer cases in the UK will rise by 37 per cent over the next 26 years. 

This is despite 40 per cent of cases being preventable if better lifestyle choices were made, such as not smoking, avoiding sun exposure, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, not drinking alcohol in excess, and eating a balanced diet. 

Smoking alone is a risk factor for 15 types of cancer, while four to eight per cent of cancers are caused by obesity

Government figures show that the number of people who are classified as obese is rising, with 25.9 per cent of adults estimated to be obese. This is a rise from the previous year when the figure was 25.2 per cent. 

The number of obese people in England could be even higher now, due to the convenience of processed foods, and the cost-of-living crisis making the weekly food shop more expensive. This has driven many into buying low-cost, low-nutritious and high-calorie foods instead of healthier options. 

Priority given to aggressive cancers

Priority is usually given to more aggressive cancers, giving patients a greatest chance of survival by treating them before the cancer spreads even more. 

However, this can leave other people’s tumours to grow in the meantime, if they are not allowed to start their treatment at a radiotherapy centre in a timely manner. 

Some patients also need prehabilitation before they can even start their treatment, which may include a period of time increasing physical activity, reducing alcohol intake, losing weight, stopping smoking, and eating more healthily to help their body cope with surgery or respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy. 

This could mean they have to wait longer, delaying their treatment even further.