Record numbers of people are coming forward for cancer tests, with almost a quarter of a million referrals in one month according to the latest data, the NHS said today.
The figures show that 246,000 people were checked for cancer in November – three times as many compared to the beginning of the pandemic in April 2020, when people were reluctant to come forward.
NHS chiefs are now urging anyone with worrying signs and symptoms not to put off vital checks and to follow the example of the hundreds of thousands of people who are already coming forward each month.
Previous research found that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, half (49%) of people said they would delay coming forward because they didn’t want to burden the health service.
Monthly figures also show that more than nine in ten people received their first treatment within a month – a standard that has not dipped below 90% throughout the pandemic despite the NHS treating more than half a million COVID patients and delivering 114 million vaccinations to date.
Dame Cally Palmer, National Cancer Director for NHS England, said: “We are going further and faster than ever before in our ambitions to catch more cancers at an earlier stage so that we can save more lives.
“From cancer symptom hotlines to rapid triage, NHS staff are working hard to ensure that those who are coming forward for checks can be seen quickly, so that cancer can be caught at an earlier stage”.
NHS staff have gone to great lengths to continue cancer treatment for patients and since March last year, more than four million people have been referred and more than half a million people have started treatment.
Common symptoms of cancer include diarrhoea that lasts for three weeks or more, new lumps or bumps and unexplained weight loss or fatigue.
Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England National Clinical Director for Cancer, said: “When coronavirus first emerged, we saw patient numbers drop dramatically as people stayed away because of fear of the virus, or because they didn’t want to burden the NHS, despite experiencing cancer symptoms – but it’s vital people continue to come forward.
“The NHS continued cancer care throughout the pandemic and that remains the same. So, if you have a sign or symptom, such as a persistent cough that is not COVID, or prolonged discomfort in the abdomen, please come forward – we are open and ready to see and treat you.
“Coming forward and getting checked out could save your life”.
Minister for Patient Safety and Primary Care, Maria Caulfield said: “It’s great to see record numbers of people come forward for cancer tests this month and I’m grateful for the tireless efforts of NHS staff who have gone above and beyond to continue cancer tests and treatments during the pandemic.
“We’ve backed the NHS with record levels of funding, making use of the latest technology and deploying more efficient, innovative ways of working, including new surgical hubs and community diagnostic centres.
“I urge anyone with cancer symptoms to follow those who have come forward for a potentially life-saving test this month – the NHS is open”.
NHS teams put a range of measures in place, such as COVID protected cancer surgery hubs, and ‘COVID friendly’ treatments that reduce the impact on a patients’ immune system or the number of hospital visits required.
Last year, the NHS announced £20 million investment to speed up cancer diagnosis so that thousands more people can get potentially life-saving cancer checks.
The NHS Long Term Plan committed to catching three quarters of cancers early, when they are easier to treat, up from half at present.
Jane Lyons, CEO of Cancer52, said: “We are really heartened to see that record numbers of people came forward for cancer tests in November 2021 and are grateful for the hard work of NHS staff during these challenging times to ensure that people with cancer are continuing to be diagnosed and treated.
“It’s vital that we continue to encourage people to come forward. Rare and less common cancers account for 47% of cancer diagnoses. Symptoms can be vague and difficult to spot. It’s therefore important that people speak to their GP if they are experiencing unusual or different symptoms for them so they can get the help they need”.
Dr Anthony Cunliffe, Clinical Adviser for Primary Care at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Anyone worried about potential cancer symptoms should contact their GP as soon as possible. Don’t think it’s not important or put it off. Your GP will make time to listen to your concerns”.
Figures taken from latest NHS England data: Statistics » Cancer Waiting Times. 246,316 people were referred for urgent checks in November 2021, the highest month on record – followed by March 2021 with 232,136 referrals