England's cancer backlog 'could take more than five years to clear'

England’s cancer backlog could take more than five years to clear, leading cancer charity warns

  • Covid pandemic has seen build up of thousands of cancer patients since 2020 
  • 32,000 fewer patients than expected have started their first cancer treatment 
  • Number of diagnoses with the disease stalled from May to November last year 
  • England’s cancer backlog won’t be tackled for another five years without urgent action, charities warned today. 

    MacMillan estimates 32,000 fewer patients than expected have started their first treatment in the two years since the start of the pandemic, due to a combination of hospitals prioritising Covid, poor access to GPs and patients being reluctant to come forward.

    While more cancer cases have started to trickle through the system now, the charity estimates at the current rate it will take until September 2027 to clear the backlog.

    Lynda Thomas, chief executive of Macmillan, said the backlog was even ‘worse than predicted’ and the timeline for a return to normal was ‘completely unacceptable’. 

    Delays raise the risk of the disease spreading to other parts of the body, which slashes survival rates and reduces patients’ treatment options.

    Separate analysis by MacMillan also shows fewer people are being diagnosed now than expected. 

    The number of people being told they have the disease stalled from May to November last year — even though it should have increased.

    This suggests there are more people with cancer slipping under the radar, the charity claimed.

    England’s Covid backlog in cancer care is set to last another five years without urgent action, a leading cancer charity warned today. Graph shows: The number of patients fewer than expected to receive first cancer treatment since the start of the pandemic (red line) and how long it will take to reduce to zero if treatments continue at the current pace (dotted red line), increase 5 per cent on pre-pandemic levels (dotted green line) or increase 10 per cent on pre-pandemic levels (dotted blue line)

    NHS England aims to treat 85 per cent of cancer patients who receive an urgent referral from their GP within two months, but in November 2021, the latest available, only 67.5 per cent of patients received treatment in this time frame. While the problem predates the Covid pandemic, the disruption to services caused by the virus has exacerbated the problem

    NHS England aims to treat 85 per cent of cancer patients who receive an urgent referral from their GP within two months, but in November 2021, the latest available, only 67.5 per cent of patients received treatment in this time frame. While the problem predates the Covid pandemic, the disruption to services caused by the virus has exacerbated the problem

    More than 65,000 ‘wait too long for cancer diagnoses’ every month 

    Some 65,400 people every month in England are waiting too long to find out whether they have cancer, according to a new analysis from Cancer Research UK.

    A new target introduced last autumn says people should be either diagnosed with the disease or have it ruled out within 28 days of an urgent referral by their GP, referral for breast symptoms or if they have been picked up through screening.

    The aim is for 75 per cent of these people to receive either a cancer diagnosis or the all-clear within a month, yet Cancer Research UK’s analysis shows this target has not yet been met since it was introduced.

    It has varied, but stood at 74 per cent in February.

    Even if the target was met, 55,000 people every month would still be left waiting to find out whether they have the disease, according to Cancer Research UK.

    Data also shows a large variation across England – with only 78 out of 143 hospital trusts meeting the 75% standard.

    Cancer Research UK said people were being failed by the system, which lacks the capacity to deal with the numbers needing to be seen.

    It also said that due to chronic shortages of specialists across the NHS, the target was also set too low.

    Experts say the Government must be even more ambitious in its upcoming 10-year cancer plan if it wants to improve diagnosis and survival, by raising the target to 95%.

    Meeting this would see around 54,300 more people each month receiving a diagnosis or having cancer ruled out within 28 days, Cancer Research UK said.

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    It comes despite Sajid Javid declaring a ‘war on cancer’, pledging to release a Ten Year Cancer Plan to make Britain the best place in the world to receive care. 

    Liane, a 37-year-old mother-of-three, missed out on getting early treatment because her cancer was diagnosed late. 

    She is now living with incurable bowel cancer, which was not spotted earlier because she was not given a blood test when she saw her GP at first, she said.

    Liane said: ‘I wasn’t considered a likely candidate for cancer at 36 and walked out of my GP surgery more than once being told I had haemorrhoids. 

    ‘I didn’t push for more investigations. If I’d been given a blood test, I might have got into the system sooner.

    ‘What I’ve been through can’t happen to anyone else. Catching cancer early is so important. 

    ‘I would implore anybody experiencing signs and symptoms to be persistent and really push for answers if they’re experiencing any cancer symptoms.’

    MacMillan looked at NHS England data from March 2020 to February 2022.

    Based on pre-pandemic figures, the charity would have expected 624,236 people with cancer to start their first treatment in that time.

    But in reality, only 591,605 were treated – creating a shortfall of 32,631.

    The charity also claimed the number of people being diagnosed with the disease was disrupted by the pandemic.

    Its analysis found that in every month from May 2021 to November 2021, the total number of people diagnosed with cancer in England dropped.

    Ms Thomas said: ‘It is deeply troubling to see thousands of people still facing unacceptably long waits for a cancer diagnosis and treatment. 

    ‘We are hearing every day from people who are experiencing huge amounts of anxiety and distress that any delays could impact their health and chances of recovery.

    ‘Everyone deserves high quality care that addresses all of their needs. 

    ‘But right now, the NHS does not have enough cancer professionals to provide this support and people living with cancer are facing detrimental effects to their physical health and overall wellbeing as a result.

    ‘The upcoming 10-Year Cancer Plan must address this. 

    ‘Otherwise, despite the very best efforts of hardworking NHS professionals, people living with cancer risk being left without vital care.’

    Sajid Javid in February declaring a 'war on cancer', pledging to release a Ten Year Cancer Plan to make Britain the best place in the world to receive care

    Sajid Javid in February declaring a ‘war on cancer’, pledging to release a Ten Year Cancer Plan to make Britain the best place in the world to receive care

    NHS cancer diagnosis and treatment targets have spiralled to record lows in the vast majority of metrics and with one exception, which has no target, all are below the health service's operation standard

    NHS cancer diagnosis and treatment targets have spiralled to record lows in the vast majority of metrics and with one exception, which has no target, all are below the health service’s operation standard

    More than a third of English patients are only diagnosed with cancer after going to A&E. More cancers were diagnosed in emergency departments in the England than in Norway, Denmark, Australia and Canada

    More than a third of English patients are only diagnosed with cancer after going to A&E. More cancers were diagnosed in emergency departments in the England than in Norway, Denmark, Australia and Canada

    Pancreatic and liver cancers were more likely to be diagnosed in A&E  in England from 2012 to 2017 than other forms

    Pancreatic and liver cancers were more likely to be diagnosed in A&E  in England from 2012 to 2017 than other forms

    Mr Javid revealed he wanted launch a ‘national war on cancer’ back in February.

    The Health Secretary said he is working on a ‘new vision’ to improve the ‘persistently poor outcomes’ experienced by people in the UK. 

    This includes a ’15-year workforce planning programme’, aiming to improve the number of cancer doctors and nurses on the NHS.

    The Government aims to diagnose 75 per cent of all cancers at stage one or two by 2028. 

    Up to 90 per cent of people diagnosed with stage one lung cancer survive for at least five years, compared to just a quarter of those with stage four.