Waiting times for tests and treatment after cancer diagnosis
Being diagnosed with cancer can be a lengthy process. 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. It is hard enough to cope with a diagnosis of cancer. If you then have to wait a few weeks or months to have important scans, or begin treatment, you are likely to feel very frightened and frustrated. Many people begin to worry that the cancer will spread during this time. But we know that cancers usually grow very slowly and this is not likely to happen.
Most cancers develop over many years and do not show up on a scan until they have been growing for some time. So waiting a few weeks for a scan or treatment does not usually affect how well the treatment works. Having said that, if you have to wait you are bound to worry so the Government are trying to shorten waiting times for treatment in the UK.
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 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 will help your doctor decide which treatment is best for you.
Unfortunately, you may have to wait a couple of weeks for an appointment for some of these tests. This may be because there is pressure on your local hospital resources and they can't keep up with the number of people who need particular types of scans. Many hospitals don't have certain types of scanners, such as an MRI scanner or PET scanner because they are very expensive to buy and run. You may have to go to another hospital, which can increase the length of time you wait.
It can take time for scan results to come through. How long you wait will depend on why you are having the scan. A specialist radiologist will examine your scan and type up a report. They send the report to your specialist who will give you the results. Understandably, waiting for results can make you anxious. It usually takes a couple of weeks for the results to come through. Your results will be ready sooner than that if your doctor puts urgent on the scan request form.
It always helps to get a rough idea of how long your test results will take. You can ask your doctor before you go for your tests. If you have not heard anything a couple of weeks after your test, ring your doctor's secretary to check if your results are back.
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. The current targets are
- No more than 2 months wait between 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.
Many hospitals are meeting this target for most patients. You can check these cancer treatment performance figures for yourself on the Department of Health website.
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. For example, if you are going to have radiotherapy, you may have to wait several weeks before you begin your treatment. This is because in the UK there is a shortage of the machines used to give radiotherapy and the staff to operate them. Even though the Government are trying hard to equip radiotherapy units with enough staff and machines, it still takes time to install the equipment and 3 to 4 years to train staff to run them.
You will start your treatment sooner if your doctor feels your treatment is urgent. Your doctors would not make you wait weeks for treatment if they thought it was going to reduce your chance of being successfully treated. It may 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 will not change your outcome.
Following on from the publication of the NHS Cancer Plan in 2000, the Government published the Cancer Reform Strategy in 2007. On the Department of Health website, you can download the Cancer Reform Strategy to see how the Government plans to further improve waiting times between diagnosis and treatment for people with cancer.
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