Another record-breaking year for NHS cancer checks

More people than ever before are getting tested for cancer with almost 3 million checks over the last 12 months, new analysis shows today.

Almost 3 million people (2,980,258) were seen for urgent cancer checks over the last year (Nov 2022 to Oct 2023) – the highest year on record. Up by 147,960 on the same period last year, and up over a quarter (622,562) on the same period before the pandemic (2,357,696).

The new analysis also shows there has been a 133% increase in the number of people getting checked for cancer, over the last decade – with 1,275,231 urgent cancer referrals between Nov 2012 to Oct 2013.

This record year of checks has been delivered despite NHS staff managing one of the busiest winters ever in addition to unprecedented industrial action.

The latest monthly figures also show that October 2023 was the highest month on record for cancer checks with 269,492 urgent referrals. In the same month more than 7 in 10 people received all clear or a definitive diagnosis for cancer within one month (192,889).

The NHS has also made progress towards its ambition to diagnose three quarters of cancers at stage one or two when they are easier to treat.

For the first time, the rapid registration data shows 58% of cancers were diagnosed at stage one or two between September 2022 and August 2023– which is around 2.1% points above the level before the pandemic.

One of the ways that the NHS is catching cancers earlier is through the hugely successful NHS lung health check programme – mobile trucks go into the heart of communities to offer checks at shopping centres and supermarket car parks, has now diagnosed almost 3,000 people with lung cancer – three quarters at stage one or two.

Owen McGrath, 71, suspected he had a bad chest infection for a few weeks when he received a letter for the targeted lung health check, and he made an appointment at a mobile unit at Hunts Cross Retail Park.

Mr McGrath is glad he did not ignore the offer from the NHS targeted lung health checks, as he found that cancer was growing inside his left lung during his free check.

“It was really simple. I just turned up, they gave me the scan there and then and I went home. A couple of weeks later they came back to me to say there was something on the scan that they wanted to investigate further

“I’m just so glad I went for the check. I didn’t expect it to show anything at all, but I later got a call to say they had found something. It was a shock, but it meant I was then given more in-depth scans and tests before they confirmed that it was cancer. They told me on my birthday but, to be honest, I was just glad they had caught it!”

Mr McGrath started a new treatment at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre after receiving his diagnosis to try and reduce the tumour with a therapy that shrinks the tumour so it is easier to surgically remove.

After successful treatment, he no longer needs any more treatment but will receive regular monitoring.

“I have been fine since the surgery and have been very well looked after,” he said. “What I would say to anyone who is offered a lung health check is to do it. Act on it immediately. You can’t ignore a free check-up – it could save your life!”

The NHS has put cancer awareness messages on urinal mats in pubs and football grounds, on underwear in Morrisons supermarkets, as well as on a large double-decker bus travelling to cancer hot spots around the country to raise awareness of signs and symptoms and encourage people to come forward for checks.

Last year also saw the NHS pledge to eliminate cervical cancer by 2040, setting out plans to increase HPV vaccine and screening uptake, to save thousands of lives every year.

Dame Cally Palmer, National Cancer Director for NHS England, said: “More people than ever before have received potentially lifesaving checks for cancer over the last year, which is a testament to the hard work of NHS staff who have delivered this level of care, despite an extremely challenging year and unprecedented industrial action.

“We know there is more to do, but we have been throwing everything we have at catching cancers earlier because we know it’s the best way to save lives – and we are seeing progress with more people than ever before being diagnosed at stage one and two.

“With teams taking tests and checks closer to people who need them, and new treatments being made available all the time, we will continue to do all we can to get people seen and treated for cancer as early as possible.”

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England National Clinical Director for Cancer, said: “Every year we are seeing extraordinary advances in treatment and new technologies coming through for patients, and I know this year will be no different.

“Cancer detected at an early stage gives people a much better chance of successful treatment, which is why the NHS has kept such a focus on early diagnosis and continues to find innovative ways to reach and test people in the community.

“Talking about cancer helps save lives too, so if you’re seeing friends and loved ones this new year, please check in with them and have a conversation, and if anyone is worried they might have signs or symptoms of cancer, please encourage them to get checked – the NHS is here for people and wants to see them at the earliest opportunity.”

Health Minister, Andrew Stephenson, said: “Catching cancer early is crucial in increasing the chances of survival, so this is a brilliant achievement for the NHS and the hardworking staff who have made it possible.

“We’re improving cancer survival rates across almost all types of cancer, but we need to go further and faster. That’s why the UK Government is growing the cancer workforce, has carried out over five million additional tests in its 141 community diagnostic centres since June 2021, and is introducing a new law to stop those who turned 14 in 2023 or younger from ever being legally sold tobacco.”