NHS figures that show more people than ever are being checked for cancer have been criticised as “misleading” by experts.
Official data published on Monday reported that almost 3 million people in England were tested for cancer in 2022, a 133% increase in the decade since 2013.
The latest monthly figures also show that October 2023 was the highest month on record for cancer checks, with 269,492 urgent referrals.
But leading cancer experts dismissed the figures as “misleading” and “smoke and mirrors”, noting that the NHS was failing to meet every cancer target by significant margins.
The October data shows that the proportion of cancer patients who waited less than two months for their first treatment after an urgent referral was 58.2%, well below the target of 85%. The figures show that 65.8% of patients with symptoms of possible breast cancer were treated within two months after referral.
The number of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer who were diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within 28 days is also going in the wrong direction. The target is 75%, but in October 71% received the all-clear or a definitive diagnosis for cancer within one month, down from 74.1% in July.
While there was a small increase in the proportion of cancers diagnosed at stage one or two in the year to August 2023 – to 58% – this is a long way off the NHS’s ambition to diagnose three-quarters of cancers in those early stages when they are easier to treat.
Dame Cally Palmer, the national cancer director for NHS England, said the figures were a testament to the hard work of NHS staff 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,” she said.
Prof Pat Price, a leading oncologist and the co-founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign, said the data could be misleading. She said: “These figures are in danger of being just smoke and mirrors. The brutal reality is that we are in the worst cancer care crisis in my lifetime. We are continuing to miss all the key cancer targets by significant margins, month in, month out.
“The UK has one of the worse cancer survival rates in the western world. Yes, more patients are being referred, but cancer rates are sadly increasing each year and the system is not keeping up in diagnosing and treating cancer patients fast enough.
“There is an urgent need for a surge in treatment capacity. We won’t resolve this crisis without a dedicated radical cancer-specific plan backed by real investment in people and technology.”
Mark Lawler, professor of digital health at Queen’s University Belfast and chair of the Lancet Oncology’s European Groundshot cancer commission, said the figures were “misleading” and that the continued failure to achieve the 62-day target was putting more cancer patients at risk.
“The indirect impact of Covid on cancer diagnosis and cancer treatments has been catastrophic,” he said. “Now more than ever we need to deliver a cancer strategy for England. Not to do so is irresponsible.”
Melanie Sturtevant, associate director of policy, evidence and influencing at Breast Cancer Now, said that too many women had to endure “unacceptable delays” to the investigation of potential breast cancer symptoms.
“The stark reality is that so much more needs to be done to speed up breast cancer diagnosis,” she said. “The NHS breast screening programme in England, which is vital in detecting breast cancer early, is chronically underfunded and overstretched.
“The government must urgently invest in the breast screening programme to ensure that it is accessible, convenient and provides all women with the high-quality care they deserve.”
Responding to the criticisms, NHS England said the focus had been on tackling the Covid backlog, but in 2024 would “pivot back” to the 62-day target for urgent cancer referrals and expect “significant improvements” against it.
Andrew Stephenson, the UK health minister, said: “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 5m 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.”
Separately, the Liberal Democrats are calling for a new legal right for patients to see a GP within seven days, after a poll of more than 2,000 UK adults commissioned by the party showed that one in three had delayed seeing a GP despite suffering pain, and one in seven had carried out a medical treatment on themselves or asked somebody who was not a medical professional to do so.
The Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, said: “Face-to-face GP appointments have become almost extinct in some areas of the country. Patients are left suffering in pain after years of neglect under the Conservative government, who have repeatedly broken their promise to recruit more GPs.
“Liberal Democrats would guarantee people a right to a GP appointment within one week so people can get the care they deserve. This would reduce pressure on our hospitals and paramedics, saving crucial time and money elsewhere in the NHS.”