Charity criticises UK cancer delays impacting tens of thousands and calls for ‘immediate action’

Tens of thousands of people with cancer have experienced delays to vital cancer checks and tests over the last decade, a charity has claimed.

Macmillan Cancer Support said that cancer care is in “crisis” due to “years of governments failing to act” after its new analysis found 180,000 people waited “too long” for diagnosis tests or to start treatment across the UK over the last 10 years.

The charity came to the figure after analysing data on cancer waiting time targets across the UK since 2014.

It said that performance against Government-set cancer waiting times targets fell to the worst on record in 2022 in all four UK nations.

Meanwhile, a survey of almost 2,500 adults in the UK who have had a cancer diagnosis in the last 10 years, conducted by the polling company YouGov on behalf of the charity, found that 556 had experienced a delay to treatment and diagnosis.

Among these, 23% of these said the delay had seen their symptoms get worse or make their cancer ‘incurable’ or led to them having ‘fewer treatment options’.

Gemma Peters (pictured), chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Cancer care is in crisis after years of governments failing to act.

“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.

“This is categorically unacceptable and entirely avoidable.

“Governments can turn things around if they act now – immediate action will start to tackle the issues people are facing right now, and governments must implement longer-term solutions for everyone affected by cancer in the years to come.

“That is why Macmillan is launching our new ‘What Are We Waiting For?’ campaign, calling on all four UK governments to commit to providing the NHS with the funding and support needed to ensure everyone, everywhere gets the potentially life-saving cancer care they desperately need, on time.”

The charity said it has been contacted by NHS cancer care workers who have expressed dismay at not having the staff or resources they need to provide quality care as quickly as they need to.

Naman Julka-Anderson, an advanced practice therapeutic radiographer and an allied health professional clinical advisor for Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “I’ve had patients arrive for their radical chemotherapy appointment who wait three hours only to be told that because of staff shortages, we can’t deliver their treatment today; it’s inhumane. Patients are really struggling with having to constantly push for their own treatment, support, and just about anything that they need, due to Government inaction.”

One lung cancer patient said she should not have to “ring up and beg for appointments”.

Jules Fielder, 39, from Hastings, told the charity: “The pressures on the NHS are already showing, and it’s heartbreaking. Just last week, I was called the day before my three-month scan to tell me it was cancelled once again. I rely on my scans; they are my lifeline. I shouldn’t be ringing up my team begging for my appointments.

“I am living life heightened where I’m so on edge about my appointments being cancelled, and so anxious that my phone is going to ring with another cancellation. It’s affecting everybody around me; my family, my friends, my son, they’re all suffering. I have the disease in my body, but my husband and my son are on the same journey with me.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Cancer remains a national priority for the NHS and Scottish Government which is why last week we published a new 10-year strategy, focused on improving cancer survival and providing equitable access to treatment.

“We are committed to detecting cancer earlier and faster, continuing to invest in cancer diagnostics and waiting times. We have also established a network of Urology Diagnostic Hubs, are investing in optimal cancer diagnostic pathways and activating additional Rapid Cancer Diagnostic Services across Scotland.

“The pandemic had a significant impact on all aspects of health and social care, and cancer services were no exception. This new Cancer Strategy will make sure we are properly delivering these vital services and clearly directing future investments.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland said: “The Cancer Strategy 2022-2032 sets the direction of travel for cancer services for the next 10 years with the vision to ensure everyone in Northern Ireland has equitable and timely access to the most effective, evidence-based referral, diagnosis, treatment, support and person-centred cancer care.

“Implementation of the strategy is ongoing, however, the department is aware that there are very significant pressures currently impacting on the delivery of all aspects of cancer care in Northern Ireland and it is extremely disappointing that the department’s performance targets for cancer waiting times are not being met.”

The spokesman added that rapid diagnostic centres continue to be rolled out across Northern Ireland to reduce waiting times for diagnosis and that a wider review of “clinical pathways” was ongoing.

A Welsh Government spokesperson later said: “We are investing heavily in cancer services to train additional staff, build new facilities, increase early detection and provide rapid access to high-quality cancer care to ensure people receive the right treatment as quickly as possible.

“The NHS in Wales has set out a detailed approach in the Cancer Improvement Plan for Wales and this includes a number of actions to improve diagnosis and treatment of cancers, such as the introduction of rapid diagnostic centres.

“In addition, we announced £86 million for new cancer diagnostic and treatment facilities and are increasing the number of training places for specialists in cancer diagnosis, treatment and palliative care.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Cutting waiting lists is one of this Government’s five priorities and the NHS has seen and treated record numbers of cancer patients over the last two years, with cancer being diagnosed at an earlier stage more often and survival rates improving across almost all types of cancer.

“We have opened 108 community diagnostic centres that have delivered over four million additional tests, checks and scans – including for cancer which is also one of the six conditions we are looking to tackle as part of our Major Conditions Strategy.

“There are more doctors, nurses and staff working in the NHS than ever before with 50% more cancer staff diagnosing and treating patients now compared to 2010 and we will soon set out plans to boost the healthcare workforce over the next five, 10 and 15 years.”

– Macmillan Cancer Support released the figures as part of its new campaign ‘What Are We Waiting For?’, which is calling for government action to tackle the delays to treatment.

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