A couple holding hands in a doctor's waiting room

New calculations from Cancer Research UK estimate that, on average, over 65,000 people in England are left waiting longer than 28 days to find out whether they have cancer each month.

These estimates are based on the latest data from the Faster Diagnosis Standard (FDS). The FDS is a performance standard introduced by Government in 2021. It’s used to better capture how long people on certain cancer-related referrals wait for a diagnosis.

This applies to people referred by their GP urgently with suspected cancer, following breast symptoms, or have been picked up through cancer screening.

The current FDS target is set at 75%, meaning three quarters of people being urgently referred should be told they have cancer or given the all-clear within that timeframe. However, this target has yet to be met.

Calculated as the average number of people who received a diagnosis, or had cancer ruled out and the result communicated to them beyond the 28-day standard between October 2021 and February 2022, this leaves approximately 65,400 people in limbo.

In addition, the data has revealed major variation across the country –with only 78 of 143 trusts meeting the 75% target. This means that despite the tireless efforts of NHS staff, chronic capacity issues mean that people continue to be failed by the system.

Michelle Mitchell, our chief executive, said: “As a country we should not be willing to accept that over 1 in 4 people on an urgent referral are left waiting over a month to find out whether they have cancer. Nor should we stand for the variation that exists across the country.”

Time to raise the bar

Cancer diagnosed at an early stage, before it can grow and spread, is more likely to be treated successfully. But early diagnosis in England currently lags behind comparable countries.

Shining a light on the cancer diagnosis pathway, the FDS aims to drive improvements in patient experience and speed up diagnosis. This is important as once someone receives a diagnosis, they can start treatment, which could save their life.

When it was first proposed as part of the 2015 Cancer Strategy for England, the target for ensuring people received diagnosis within 28 days was 95%, and this was something the charity came together with others in the cancer community to call for. However, due to chronic shortages of specialists critical to diagnosing cancer across the NHS, the target has been introduced too low.

These same shortages mean the target has yet to be met on a national level, but even meeting it could still leave 55,000 people a month waiting too long.

Waiting to hear whether or not you have cancer is already a hugely anxious time for people and this is only further heightened when there are delays. But these delays are not inevitable.

The charity is calling on Government to include a more ambitious target within its upcoming 10-year cancer plan, to help ensure around 54,300 more people each month receive a diagnosis or have cancer ruled out within a month.

With a robust plan and sustained investment to build a cancer workforce fit for the future, we could diagnose people quicker and earlier, and save more lives.

Patrick McGuire

Patrick’s Story

Patrick McGuire has been volunteering with us since 2013 in memory of his wife, Pam.

“My wife died from bowel cancer aged just 52 after she was diagnosed far too late. Better investment in diagnostic capability should be a priority for the Government’s 10 Year Cancer Plan and could save thousands of lives a year”

Read more about how Patrick and our other Campaigns Ambassadors submitted evidence to shape the 10-Year Plan here

“The Government has declared it will radically improve cancer care in England through its 10-year Cancer Plan, and crucial to this plan is ensuring that more people receive an all-important timely diagnosis.” said Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician.

Mitchell added: “The Government must take this opportunity to deliver for the millions of people affected by cancer. With ambitious targets, a credible plan to reach them and clear accountability, we can get there.”


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