For the first time last year, the NHS in England carried out more than two million checks on people who feared they might have cancer.
In 2018, patients underwent a record 2.2 million cancer checks following urgent referral by their GP, almost 6,000 a day or more than four every minute. That was an increase of almost a quarter of a million on the 1.9 million people who were seen in 2017.
The NHS attributes the rise to a number of factors, including new guidance introduced in 2015 for GPs, lowering the threshold for cancer referral and more awareness raising than ever before with high profile celebrities such as Bill Turnbull, Stephen Fry and Jeremy Bowen recently sharing their stories, leading to a significant increase in people checking for cancer symptoms.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, paid tribute to the "hard work and dedication" of GPs and their teams around the country.
"GPs have long borne the brunt of criticism for late diagnosis, and today's figures help set the record straight and demonstrate the important contribution that GPs make to the overall picture of cancer referrals and treatment in the NHS.
"GPs will always do their best for their patients and are well aware of the link between timely diagnosis and improved survival rates.
"However, cancer can present itself in many non-specific and vague ways, and GPs need much easier access to the right diagnostics in the community – along with the appropriate training and time to use them - so that we can continue this good work and deliver the best possible care to all our patients."
Record numbers of people also received treatment for cancer, with 308,058 receiving a first treatment in 2018, almost 13,000 more than in 2017 and the first time the number has topped 300,000. Cancer survival is at an all-time high with new figures showing 10,000 more patients surviving for at least 12 months after diagnosis than five years earlier. However, the NHS Long Term Plan aims to increasing the proportion of cancers caught early from half to three quarters, an improvement that will save up to 55,000 more lives each year.
NHS England’s national director for cancer Cally Palmer has said the growing number of referrals is encouraging and wants even more people to come forward if they think they are at risk.
“Thanks to a greater awareness of symptoms, more people than ever before are coming forward to get checked for cancer, with over two million in just one year and record numbers of people receiving treatment.
“We want to see even more people seeking help when something is not right – catching cancer earlier when it can be treated best is crucial to providing peace of mind for patients and their families and saving more lives.
“We are rapidly driving forward the NHS Long Term Plan’s ambitions to improve dramatically the experience of millions of people across the country.”
The NHS Long Term Plan includes the introduction of a new 28-day faster diagnosis standard that will see patients diagnosed with cancer or given the all clear within four weeks.
This will be part of a major overhaul of services for suspected cancer including:
- The introduction of rapid diagnostic centres or ‘one stop shops’ across the country to speed up cancer diagnosis
- Lung scanning trucks in supermarket carparks in 10 areas of the country to check those most at risk, inviting them for an MOT of their lungs
- Upgrading equipment, including CT and MRI scanners, which can deliver faster and safer tests
- Introducing more effective and patient-friendly tests in the bowel and cervical cancer screening programmes to save more lives.