Diagnosing Cancer Faster

The aim of the Cancer Programme is to revolutionise cancer care by delivering the recommendations of the Independent Cancer Taskforce report. National Cancer Director, Cally Palmer, explains how NHS England is building on the excellent services we have already in places to achieve long-lasting transformational change across the country.

By 2020, the changes we are making will save lives and ensure NHS cancer services are up with the best in the world, meaning that:

  • Fewer people get preventable cancers.
  • More people survive for longer after a diagnosis.
  • More people have a positive experience of their care.
  • More people have a better long-term quality of life.

One key change we’re making is to tell people whether they have cancer or not within 28 days of them going for tests. At the moment, we just measure how long it takes to first see a specialist doctor, or whether treatment is started within two months. This new standard will put a focus on the time after symptoms are first spotted. For those who are diagnosed with cancer, it puts them in the driving seat to get treatment started as soon as possible. For those who aren’t, they can more quickly have their minds put at rest at a very stressful time.

The new standard will come into force by April 2020. Today is important as we are letting the wider NHS know that the new Cancer Waiting Times data collection system – which makes it possible for us to measure the new standard – will go live from April next year. Hospitals and GPs, with the support of their local Cancer Alliance, will then work together to over the next couple of years to make changes to their recording systems and clinical pathways so they meet this new commitment. The £200m investment in transformation through Cancer Alliances over the next two years will help towards this.

Five pilot sites have been working with us on the details of how the new standard can be measured, and what the NHS will need to do to ensure it can deliver for patients. We’ll use the knowledge from these pilots to help those rolling out the standard across the country.

Each site focused on at least two types of tumour pathway from a list of gynaecology, lung, upper and lower GI, urology and head and neck and full details are below:

East Lancashire

  • Lung
  • Upper GI


  • Gynaecology
  • Lower GI


  • Gynaecology
  • Lower GI


  • Gynaecology
  • Head and Neck
  • Urology

Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch

  • Lower GI
  • Lung
  • Urology

When this standard is first introduced, it will only include people who are referred into hospitals for cancer tests. However, we know that in some cases where cancer is eventually diagnosed, people don’t go into hospital straight away as they have symptoms that aren’t immediately suspicious of cancer or their GPs do the tests themselves. For some of those people, diagnosing their cancer early – before it has developed or spread – can make the difference in making successful treatment more likely.

Clearly, we want everyone to be diagnosed as quickly as possible. This is why as well as introducing the new standard we’re investing through Cancer Alliances in projects such as Rapid Assessment and Diagnostic models and help for GPs to spot the signs and symptoms of cancer earlier. The results of the National Cancer Diagnosis Audit – available later this year – will also have valuable pointers on improving diagnosis through GP surgeries and primary care.

The challenges in delivering faster – and earlier – diagnosis are considerable but the benefits for patients are real. Through the standard, we can diagnose and reassure patients earlier and improve care and outcomes.

Cally Palmer

Cally Palmer is NHS England’s National Cancer Director leading the implementation of the NHS Cancer Taskforce’s five year strategy for cancer care improvement, as well as new cancer Vanguards using outcomes-based commissioning to redesign care and the patient experience.

She is also Chief Executive of The Royal Marsden Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and retains this role while seconded to NHS England.

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  1. Mrs Meehan says:

    I have been waiting for more than 12 weeks for a cervical smear test result. Will it take until 2020 before I see the result too. NHS should be ashamed of it’s performance on this.

  2. n patel says:

    the new Cancer Waiting Times data collection system link does not work

    • NHS England says:

      Hi, Thank you for your comment.

      I’ve checked the link and can confirm that the link is working.

      If you experience any further issues, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

      Many thanks
      NHS England

  3. Ethel Armstrong says:

    Helo Cally, did you attend the NHS EXPO 70 on the 11th/12th September ??? if so I hope that we crossed paths.

    This is my 70th year of service between the NHS from 1948 and the charity I am privileged to be Life Patron – the and also LINK with Cavell nurses .com via their Benevolent fund.
    Most of my working life was spent in early diagnosis of ALL Cancers but particularly cervical cancer and Breast Cancer – as one of the pioneer teams who compained long and hard to get the National Breast Screening Service – way back in the late 1980`s

    I will follow your progress- and back you 100% – I hope that IF you did not attend – we can meet up one day – The NHSRF charity has branches connected with the R.M.H. – with members who are retirees from the NHS – the charity gives support to anyone from ANY discipline who has worked for the NHS. I am known by the NHSI team, the Innovations team and of course Simon Stevens – and will be taking part in the 2018 celebrations Ethel Armstrong

  4. Cheryl Cruwys says:

    Dear Ms. Palmer, A video/editorial about my work. I am a b/c survivor. My focus: early diagnosis. I am the lead educator about breast density for the UK. My work is endorsed by health professionals & imaging experts worldwide.
    I will be attending the BAC conference, Westminster in December. I very much hope to get the opportunity to meet you.

    Kind regards, Cheryl Cruwys, Founder
    Breast Density Matters UK