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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. 

You may begin to worry that the cancer will spread during this time. But we know that most cancers usually grow very slowly. So waiting a few weeks for a scan or treatment does not usually affect how well the treatment works.

The government has set targets for maximum waiting times for urgent referrals and to start treatment.

Waiting for tests

Doctors do various tests, such as CT scans, MRI scans or ultrasounds, to get as much information about the cancer as possible. This helps them to work out the stage of the cancer. The stage of the cancer refers to the size and whether it has spread. This helps your doctor decide which treatment is best for you. 

Unfortunately, you might have to wait for an appointment for some of these tests. This could be because there is pressure on your local hospital due to the number of people needing certain scans. Some types of specialised scans 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.

Waiting for scan results

It can take time for scan results to come through. A specialist doctor 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. But it might be ready sooner if your doctor puts urgent on the scan request form.

Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your doctor or specialist nurse to give you a rough idea of how long your test results are likely to take. You can ring your doctor's secretary if you have not heard anything after a couple of weeks.

Waiting to start 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 people with cancer. 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 (62 days) wait between the date the hospital receives an urgent referral for suspected cancer and the start of treatment
  • no more than 31 days wait between the meeting at which you and your doctor agree the treatment plan and the start of treatment

You might have to wait longer if you need extra tests to fully diagnose the cancer. 

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

Let your doctor know if you are worried about waiting for 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 affect how well the treatment works.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.