The number of people receiving NHS cancer checks has hit a high, with new data showing more cancers are being identified at an earlier stage.
In the past year, 2.92m people received a check for cancer, more than any previous year on record according to the NHS England (NHSE). This comes amid concerns that the ministers may scrap a number of cancer wait time targets, including the target of seeing a specialist within two weeks of a referral from a GP.
In June of this year, the NHS delivered over a quarter of a million urgent cancer checks (261,000), more than double the number checked in the same month in 2012-13.
A higher proportion of cancers were diagnosed at an earlier stage of their development in 2022-23, making treatment easier and survival more likely.
In the last year, 58% of all cancers were diagnosed at stage one or two, compared with around 56% of cancers in 2018-19 before the Covid-19 pandemic.
NHS England national clinical director for cancer, Professor Peter Johnson, said that the increased number of people receiving checks was a ‘testament to NHS staff who have done this despite significant pressures and industrial action’.
Professor Johnson noted that it was vital for patients to continue to seek medical advice and checks if they have a sign or symptom, such as a lump or persistent cough.
A record 335,000 people also started treatment for cancer in the last year between July 2022 and June 2023, according to the data, up by over 20,000 from the same period before the pandemic.
The publication of this data comes amid speculation that NHSE may drop six of the nine current cancer wait times targets.
While a decision has not yet been announced, NHSE has confirmed that the proposals have been put forward by leading cancer experts and have the support of cancer charities and clinicians.
Among the targets mooted to be dropped is the target for all patients to see a specialist within two weeks of an urgent referral for cancer tests.
NHS national medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said that by replacing the outdated two-week wait target with a ‘faster diagnosis standard’ already being used across the country, ‘hundreds of patients waiting to have cancer ruled out or diagnosed could receive this news faster’.
Professor Powis added that the proposal to scrap the targets will remove the need for ‘unnecessary outpatient appointments in order to comply with waiting times rules, allowing more patients to be referred “straight to test” and the wider deployment of diagnostic technologies including artificial intelligence.’
The three targets expected to remain are diagnosis of cancer within 28 days of referral; starting treatment within two months of an urgent referral; and that patients should start treatment one month of a decision to treat.
However, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme today, founder of the Catch UP with Cancer campaign and visiting oncology professor at Imperial College, Professor Pat Price, said that changing the targets ‘won’t help patients, unless we can treat patients better and quicker’.
Professor Price added: ‘Is it really the best that government and senior NHS leaders can do is fiddle around with targets in the middle of this crisis?’