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Monday, 13 March, 2000, 15:56 GMT
10-month wait for cancer treatment
Radiation therapy
Patients waiting months for treatment
A huge survey of cancer patients has revealed some are waiting as long as 10 months between diagnosis and the start of their treatment.

Results of the government-commissioned survey of hospitals in England show that men with prostate cancer face the longest waits - the average wait for 90% of patients is 292 days. Some are waiting even longer.

The government, in response, says the figures are now outdated, and that pledges to cut waiting times for cancer are increasingly being met.

It is a spongy ball scenario - if you respond to one cancer and then the next one, can you do so without the ball going out of shape and not being able to respond in other areas?

Professor Peter Spurgeon
The figures for waiting times vary widely between cancers, but even the type of the disease treated most quickly - breast cancer - involved a wait of between two and three months on average.

The survey by researchers at the University of Birmingham, funded by the Department of Health and published in the British Medical Journal, reveals that all cancer patients are facing long waits.

The average wait for cervical cancer patients needing urgent treatment is four months.

People with lung cancer, where only disease caught early can be cured, are waiting three months even when GPs say their cases are urgent.

Cancer treatment has been given high priority by the government, which has pledged that no patient should wait longer than two weeks to see a specialist.


None of the cancers surveyed met this target for patients when it was carried out. The study, featured in the BBC's Panorama programme on Monday, looked at patients diagnosed in October 1997.

One of the authors of the report Professor David Kerr said he was surprised at the length of the waits faced by many patients.

The figures for bowel cancer were among the most worrying, he said. Patients with the disease waited 95 days if their cases were categorised as urgent, 147 if non-urgent.

Professor Kerr, a clinical oncologist, said: "The most important thing is the time between the GP referring the patient into hospital and first treatment. In the case of bowel, surgery 80% of patients need surgery, so 147 days getting through to surgery seemed remarkable to me. It is just too long."

He and fellow author Professor Peter Spurgeon agreed that the concentration of resources into high profile cancers such as breast cancer was speeding up treatment times in these areas.

Average waiting times in days for 90% of patients - urgent/non-urgent
Breast - 62/90
Colorectal - 95/147
Lung - 91/112
Cervical - 123/181
Prostate - 143/292
Bladder - 124/178
Oesophagus - 85/154
Professor Spurgeon said: "It is a spongy ball scenario - if you respond to one cancer and then the next one, can you do so without the ball going out of shape and not being able to respond in other areas?"

The figures will be used as a basis for future studies to see if targets to improve cancer treatment times are being met.

The survey was published on the day that the government released details of breast cancer treatment times showing that 96% of patients were seen by a specialist for an outpatient appointment within 2 weeks of urgent referral by a GP in the quarter ending December 1999.

Public health minister Yvette Cooper said: "The Government is committed to reducing the lottery of cancer care in this country. We aim to cut death rates from cancer by one fifth - up to 100,000 fewer deaths in the next ten years.

"Today's breast cancer results show that more women than ever are being seen by a specialist within two weeks of being referred urgently by their GP."

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See also:

02 Mar 00 | Health
1m for prostate cancer research
02 Dec 99 | Health
Bowel cancer death rates fall
03 Jan 00 | Health
Cash boost for cancer care
04 Jan 00 | Health
Cancer rates rising
04 Jan 00 | Medical notes
The future of cancer treatment
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