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Cancer Delay Figures Do Not Tell the Whole Picture


A greater public awareness of the symptoms to look out for is needed to help improve cancer survival rates in England.

According to the recently published Incisive Health report, commissioned by Cancer Research UK, 46 per cent of cancers in England are diagnosed at a late stage, when they are harder to treat successfully.

However, there is no one simple answer to spotting cancers earlier and increasing survival rates. In addition to greater public awareness, health organisations must also be prepared to address the current resourcing issues so that as a country we have the ability to provide quality care and improve cancer survival.

There are a number of factors that affect the survival rates of cancer patients such as how soon that person first goes to see a doctor. Some cancers cause very few or no symptoms at all in their early stages, making them very difficult to spot at an earlier stage. Many have symptoms that are also caused by more common conditions.

The report suggests that as well as lives being saved, millions of pounds could be saved through diagnosing and treating cancer earlier. It revealed that if cancer is caught at its earliest stage, 5,000 more patients a year would live at least five years after diagnosis.

At the heart of the issue is patient awareness of the symptoms to look out for, and also of the need to go to see their GP if these develop. However, this relies upon the GP taking the appropriate action. Only this week, the mother of the inspirational Stephen Sutton has spoken out about the critical missed opportunities to diagnose her son's cancer at an earlier stage. The teenager was just 19 years-old and despite visiting his GP on several occasions, his symptoms of cancer were overlooked.

In my work, I unfortunately see instances where patients have experienced delays in being referred to a cancer specialist in hospital. A failure by a GP to identify the signs of potential cancers could mean that a cancer develops further and this reduces the treatment options when it is finally found. Sadly, missing the opportunity for early diagnosis and treatment may also affect a person's life expectancy. Where this happens, patients or their families can seek compensation, which can include the cost of the extra treatment and assistance required as a result.

This latest report suggests that this isn't an isolated issue with GP performance, and I would agree with this. It's also about giving people the confidence to come forward and become more aware of their bodies, allowing individuals to spot when something is wrong. However, this may lead to another issue. As a result of several recent high-profile awareness campaigns encouraging the public to visit their GPs, it has been well documented that NHS services have seen an increase in patients coming forward and have struggled to keep up with increased demand. The NHS must have the resource in order to give patients the time and care they deserve, otherwise this could result in further mistakes and missed opportunities for those with cancer.

Cancers are easier to treat if spotted earlier, which therefore reduces the length of time people are in hospital and reduces treatment costs. However, once treated, are patients receiving the holistic treatment and support that they need? This is of huge significance given that such progress in research and treatment has meant many more people surviving and living many years after cancer. These patients should be given the support they need to move forward, and indeed to thrive in their life after having cancer.

The governing bodies and health professionals need to work together to address current pitfalls in the system so that ultimately people with cancer receive the best quality of care throughout, from diagnosis, to treatment and beyond.

Suzanne Trask is a partner and medical negligence specialist at Bolt Burdon Kemp.

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