If a doctor suspects a patient has cancer, they’ll now be able to refer them to a pop-up clinic dedicated solely to diagnosing the disease. As part of the NHS’s new trial, GPs will be able to refer patients with “vague, non-specific symptoms” such as unexplained weight loss to one of 10 specialist cancer diagnosis centres across the UK.
Early diagnosis is crucial for many types of cancer, meaning the difference between life and death. Pancreatic cancer, for example, has a high mortality rate as its symptoms often remain undetected until it reaches an advanced stage. Symptoms are often non-specific to the cancer itself and include pain around the upper abdomen, unexpected weight loss and jaundice.
Ali Stunt, founder and CEO of Pancreatic Cancer Action, experienced weight loss, diarrhoea and loss of appetite 10 years ago. After being misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Stunt asked to be referred to a specialist and scans revealed she had pancreatic cancer. She credits her persistence for saving her life.
The charity CEO hailed the new trial as “a real step in the right direction to improve early diagnosis for all cancers, particularly for patients who present with non-specific symptoms”. But said that while it will be “a real time-saver” for primary and secondary healthcare professionals, she is concerned that the power still lies in the hands of GPs to correctly spot those patients who need to be referred.
“While improving the diagnostic pathway is a vital element for increasing early diagnosis, this needs to be coupled with providing GPs with the knowledge and expertise to identify [these] patients,” Stunt added.
The new pop-ups, co-ordinated by NHS England, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support, will aim to diagnose people like Stunt whose “vague” symptoms can easily be associated with other conditions.
Here’s what you need to know about the scheme and the symptoms which could be a red flag to your GP.
Which symptoms would warrant a referral?
:: Unexplained weight loss. This is where a person’s body weight diminishes involuntarily. Your body weight can regularly fluctuate, but unintentional loss of more than 5% of your weight over six to 12 months is a cause for concern. If you experience this, or any of the following symptoms, you should speak to your GP.
:: Abdominal discomfort or pain. Again this can be caused by a wide range of conditions - some serious, some not. According to Macmillan Cancer Support, any unexplained aches or pains that last more than three weeks should be checked out by a doctor.
:: Loss of appetite can sometimes come hand-in-hand with unexplained weight loss. You might notice you no longer have the same desire to eat, or you may not feel hungry. The idea of eating might also make you feel sick, or you might be physically sick after consuming food.
:: Fatigue. If you’ve lost your appetite, you might also experience fatigue (extreme tiredness) because your body isn’t getting the calories and nutrients it’s used to. While it can be caused by conditions like flu, it can also be a sign of cancer so it’s worth getting checked out.
:: Sweating. It’s not something you’d typically associate with cancer, but sweating is one of the symptoms the NHS has identified as being a cause for concern. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, carcinoid tumours, leukaemia, mesothelioma, bone cancer and liver cancer can all cause excessive sweating, according to Cancer Research UK. It can also be a symptom of late-stage cancer of any type.
:: Feeling generally unwell. If you’ve felt generally unwell for a number of weeks then you should speak to your GP about it. According to the NHS, there’s no set timeframe for feeling unwell - it could be days, weeks or even months. When you speak to your GP, tell them how long you’ve been feeling unwell and they will make the call as to whether to refer you.
Where are the trial clinics located?
The 10 trial centres are located at:
:: North Middlesex University Hospital (London)
:: University College London Hospital (London)
:: Royal Free Hospital (London)
:: Southend University Hospital (Southend-on-Sea)
:: Queen’s Hospital (Romford)
:: St James’s University Hospital (Leeds)
:: Airedale General Hospital (West Yorkshire)
:: University Hospital South Manchester (Manchester)
:: Royal Oldham Hospital (Manchester)
:: Churchill Hospital (Oxford)
The trial service is currently only available to people living within the local Cancer Alliance that each clinic sits within.
How long will diagnosis take?
Once you’ve arrived at a treatment centre, all of the necessary investigations can be done in the same place, so there’s no need to travel between hospitals.
Patients will undergo numerous tests for cancer and will be either given the all-clear on the same day or require further tests, with a final diagnosis aiming to be given within two weeks.
What happens next?
The new centres are part of the NHS’s plan to meet the new faster diagnosis standard, where patients with suspected cancer should receive a diagnosis or the all clear within 28-days. Those diagnosed with cancer can be referred on to specialists, while those with benign conditions receive appropriate treatment and tailored advice about prevention.
As part of wider plans to deliver rapid diagnostic and assessment pathways, through access to NHS England transformation funding, local cancer alliances are setting up more multidisciplinary diagnostic centres across the country.
Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said: “We’re confident that these 10 pilot centres will give us a much better understanding of what’s needed to speed up the diagnosis and treatment of people with less obvious symptoms, improve their experience of care and, ultimately, survival.
“This is a first for this country and Cancer Research UK is delighted to be partnering with NHS England in this innovative initiative. The knowledge gained will support others looking to roll out similar approaches in future.”