There are waiting time targets for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in the different UK nations.
Having to wait
To get a diagnosis of cancer can sometimes take a while. Sometimes it might feel that you are waiting too long. Usually, everyone will have to wait to have tests or to get results. Sometimes you might have to wait for appointments. Only then you can start treatment. This can be frustrating and difficult to cope with.
You may begin to worry that the cancer will spread during this time. But we know that most cancers usually grow slowly. So waiting a few weeks for a scan or treatment does not usually affect how well the treatment works.
Within the UK, there are targets for maximum waiting times to start treatment. The different UK nations have their targets around:
- referral for suspected cancer
- waiting times to a diagnosis
Urgent referral for suspected cancer
Your GP might arrange for you to see a hospital doctor (specialist) urgently. This might be because you have symptoms that could be due to cancer. An urgent referral can be worrying. But remember that 9 in every 10 people (90%) referred this way will not have a diagnosis of cancer.
In England, an urgent referral means that you should see a specialist within 2 weeks. In Northern Ireland, the 2 week wait only applies for suspected breast cancer.
Scotland, Wales and (in general) Northern Ireland don't have the 2 week time frame to see a specialist. But wherever you live, a specialist will see you as soon as possible.
Waiting for tests
A specialist may need to do a variety of tests to decide on a diagnosis. If they diagnose cancer, you may then need further tests. This is to get as much information about the cancer as possible.
For example, your specialist might arrange a scan such as a CT scan, MRI scan or PET scan. This helps them to work out the stage of the cancer. The stage of the cancer refers to the size and whether it has spread. This helps your medical team to decide which treatment is best for you.
Unfortunately, you might have to wait for an appointment for some of these tests. This could be because of the high number of people needing certain scans.
Some types of specialised scans are only available in larger hospitals. So you might need to go to another hospital for your scan, which can increase the length of time you wait.
Waiting for scan results
A specialist doctor needs to examine your scan and write a report. They send the report to your cancer specialist who will give you the results. It usually takes a couple of weeks for the results to come through. But it might be ready sooner if your specialist puts urgent on the scan request form.
Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your specialist to give you a rough idea of how long your test results are likely to take. You can ring their secretary if you have not heard anything after a couple of weeks.
Waiting for a diagnosis
NHS England is working towards a new target called the Faster Diagnosis Standard (FDS). The target is that you should not wait more than 28 days from referral to finding out whether you have cancer or not. It is to make sure patients don't have to wait too long to find out their diagnosis.
The FDS applies to those people who have an urgent referral to see a specialist through one of the following:
- the 2 week urgent referral
- the urgent screening programme pathway
The urgent screening programme pathway is when your doctor refers you for further urgent assessment. This is usually following an abnormal result. It is as part of one of the 3 screening programmes in England:
- breast cancer
- bowel cancer
- cervical screening
Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales
At the moment, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have not set this target.
Waiting to start treatment
In an ideal world, people would start treatment within a month of diagnosis. There are waiting time targets to start treatment.
In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland the current targets are:
- no more than 2 months (62 days) wait between the date the hospital receives an urgent referral for suspected cancer and the start of treatment
- no more than 31 days wait between the meeting at which you and your doctor agree the treatment plan and the start of treatment
In May 2019 Wales introduced the Single Cancer Pathway. This combines all urgent and non urgent referrals into one target time of 62 days or less. This means, that when cancer is first suspected, everyone should have a confirmed diagnosis and start treatment within 62 days.
The time starts from one of the following:
- when you first see your GP and they suspect cancer
- when you have a suspicious change on your screening mammogram and you need further tests
If your cancer comes back
NHS England has a waiting time target for cancer that has come back (a recurrence). They say that you should start treatment within 31 days. This time starts from the meeting in which you and your doctor have agreed your treatment plan.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not set this target. But you will start treatment as soon as possible.
A new primary cancer
In some situations, your doctor may diagnose a new primary cancer instead of a recurrence. If so, you should wait no more than 2 months (62 days) to start treatment. This time starts on the date that the hospital has received an urgent referral for suspected cancer.
You might have to wait longer if you need extra tests to diagnose your cancer. Waiting times can vary depending on the type of cancer and the type of treatment you are going to have.
Tell your specialist or nurse if you worry about waiting for treatment. They will understand that you find it hard to wait a few weeks for treatment. They will be able to reassure you. Usually, waiting should not affect how well your treatment works.