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Waiting times for tests and treatment after cancer diagnosis

There are targets for waiting times that hospitals should work towards. 

Having to wait

Being diagnosed with cancer can sometimes take a while. At times, just about everyone will have to wait to have tests or to get the results. Sometimes people have to wait for appointments to begin their treatment. This can be frustrating and difficult to cope with. 

Many people begin to worry that the cancer will spread during this time. But we know that most cancers usually grow very slowly and this is not likely to happen. Waiting a few weeks for a scan or treatment does not usually affect how well the treatment works.

Having said that, you are bound to worry. The government has set targets for maximum waiting times for treatment.

Waiting for tests

There is always a risk that a cancer has already spread to other parts of your body when it is diagnosed. Because of this, doctors do various tests to check for cancer spread, such as CT scans, MRI scans or liver scans.

It is important for your doctors to have as much information about your cancer as possible. This helps them to work out the stage of your cancer. The stage of the cancer refers to the size of a cancer and whether it has spread. This will help your doctor decide which treatment is best for you. 

Unfortunately, you might have to wait a couple of weeks for an appointment for some of these tests. This could be because there is pressure on your local hospital due to people needing particular types of scans. Some types of specialised scanner such as an MRI scanner or PET scanner are only available in larger hospitals. So you might need to go to another hospital for your scan, which can increase the length of time you wait.

Why it can take time

It can take time for scan results to come through. A specialist radiologist needs to examine your scan and type up a report. They send the report to your cancer specialist who will give you the results.

It usually takes a couple of weeks for the results to come through. Your results might be ready sooner than that if your doctor puts urgent on the scan request form.

Understandably, waiting for results can make you anxious. It might help to get a rough idea of how long your test results will take. So do ask your doctor or specialist nurse before you go for your tests. If you have not heard anything after a couple of weeks, you could ring your doctor's secretary to check if your results are back.

Waiting to start treatment

Everyone agrees it is unacceptable to wait too long between a diagnosis of cancer and starting treatment. In an ideal world, people would start treatment within a month of being diagnosed.

The government have set waiting time targets in England and Wales for treating cancer patients. Waiting time targets set by the Scottish Government and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland are the same. The current targets are:

  • no more than 2 months wait between the date the hospital receives an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer and starting treatment
  • starting treatment no more than 31 days after the meeting at which you and your doctor agree the treatment plan

If patients have to wait longer, it should be because they choose to or because they need extra tests to fully diagnose their cancer. 

Most hospitals are meeting this target for most of their patients. But in the UK, waiting times can vary depending on the type of cancer you have and the type of treatment you are going to have. 

It might help to let your doctor know if you are worried about waiting for your treatment. It is likely they will be able to reassure you that although waiting a few weeks for treatment is very hard, overall it should not change your outcome.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.