A record year for people receiving lifesaving NHS cancer checks

Almost three million people were referred for cancer checks over the last 12 months – the highest year on record – up by over a tenth on the 2.4 million people referred before the pandemic.

NHS cancer chiefs continue to urge people to come forward as the latest data shows that record numbers of people have received vital NHS cancer tests in the last year (March 2021 – February 2022).

Even at the peak of the Omicron wave, referrals for suspected cancer were at 116% of pre-pandemic levels with around 11,000 people getting checked every day over the last year.

Health chiefs have doubled spending on cancer awareness campaigns and continue to encourage people to come forward for checks if invited by the NHS or if they have experienced any worrying symptoms.

Despite pressures on hospitals due to Covid-19, the number of people being treated for the disease remained higher than before the pandemic – with 315,000 starting treatment b compared to 313,000 before the pandemic.

In order to meet increasing demand for cancer checks, NHS services across the country are expanding their diagnostic capabilities through one stop shops for tests, mobile clinics and cancer symptom hotlines, ensuring people are diagnosed and treated as early as possible to give them a much better chance of beating the disease.

More than 30,000 people every month are being invited for lung cancer checks through NHS mobile trucks visiting at risk communities across the country, as part of the biggest programme to improve early lung cancer diagnosis in health service history.

In London, the first ‘Man Van’ programme, developed by The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, RM Partners West London Cancer Alliance, and The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is rolling out to provide free health checks for men and boost early diagnosis of prostate and other urological cancers.

The van, currently in New Addington, previously visited workplaces and churches in the South West London area, focusing on men of working age who often have worse prostate cancer outcomes than older men, and black men, who have roughly double the risk of developing prostate cancer and an increased risk of death once diagnosed. It is now open to the public and will be visiting various locations within West London.

At The Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust, they have introduced telephone triage for certain cancer referrals so that patients can speak to doctors sooner, as well as increasing the use of ‘straight-to-test’ pathways for lower gastrointestinal patients to get diagnosed as early as possible, and expanding one-stop-shop slots for patients referred under a breast cancer pathway, so patients can get all their tests in one trip.

NHS staff have gone to great lengths to maintain cancer treatment for patients and since March 2020, more than 4.7m have been referred and more than half a million people have started treatment.

Common symptoms of cancer include lumps or bumps and unexplained weight loss or fatigue.

Dame Cally Palmer, National Cancer Director for NHS England, said: “We are going further and faster than ever before in our ambitions to diagnose more cancers at an earlier stage so that we can save more lives.

“We have seen record numbers of people coming forward for checks in the last year, but we know there are still at least 30,000 who haven’t started treatment due to the pandemic, so it’s vital that we keep these referral rates high.

“While we know this can’t happen overnight, we’re investing in extra diagnostic and treatment capacity to meet increasing demand, with staff working hard to roll out initiatives from straight to test services, cancer symptom hotlines and innovative diagnostics, so that those who are coming forward for checks can be seen quickly and their cancer identified at an earlier stage”.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England National Clinical Director for Cancer, said: “We know the pandemic meant that at first we saw fewer patients, but in the last year GP’s have been referring people for investigation in record numbers and have been working hard to make sure people with worrying symptoms can be seen. The NHS has continued to prioritise cancer care throughout the pandemic.

“It’s vital people continue to come forward, so if you have a sign or symptom that you’re worried about, such as a persistent cough that is not COVID, or prolonged discomfort in the abdomen, please come forward – getting checked out could save your life”.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “The pandemic put unprecedented pressure on the NHS and it is positive to see more people coming forward for treatment and record numbers of people receiving life-saving cancer checks.

“We need to go beyond business as usual which is why we are rolling out new surgical hubs and up to 160 community diagnostic centres offering millions more scans, checks and operations as soon as possible – with over 770,000 additional tests delivered already.

“Our upcoming 10-year cancer plan that will lead Europe in cancer care, along with our record investment to cut waiting times and the introduction of the Health and Social Care Levy will help us continue our mission to tackle the Covid backlogs.”

NHS campaigns, such as “Help Us Help You” and work with Prostate Cancer UK, have raised more public awareness about cancer screenings and has encouraged people to come forward.

Since the Prostate Cancer UK campaign operated through February and March, over 550,000 people have used their risk checker with those deemed high risk encouraged to visit their GP.

As set out in the NHS elective recovery plan earlier this year, around £2.3 billion will be used to expand diagnostics and £1.5billion for treatment, with a focus on cancer, to ensure wait times are addressed for everyone. The NHS will increase capacity to deliver around 17 million diagnostic tests over a three-year period.

72-year-old Clive Horsnell from Devon was diagnosed with bowel cancer last year and was treated with advanced robotic surgery at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust. He had been experiencing symptoms but was prompted to come forward for a check having seen an NHS ‘Help Us Help You’ advert.

He said: “I was getting constipation and was forcing myself to go to the loo and then I was seeing blood.

“I saw the NHS advert on the television, and I contacted my GP straight away.

“By the end of the week I was having a colonoscopy and was told then that I had the cancer.

“I was in hospital within a couple of weeks for scans and met with a doctor at Derriford Hospital who was absolutely brilliant and explained the special robotic procedure I’d be having. He really put my mind at ease.

“I was back in the following day and it all went really smoothly. The procedure was amazing, I had five holes in my tummy, but they didn’t have to open me up, everything was done inside. The recovery time is so quick, and within a few days I was home.

“I lost my mum when I was 18 with a tumour on the brain, and I have four sisters who have all had cancer, as well as my son.

“I’m so glad I had that check-up and got the treatment I needed so quickly. I can now get on with my life.

“I was back in again in January just to confirm that everything had gone well, and I’ve had the ‘all clear’.”