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Waiting times for tests and treatment after cancer diagnosis

This page is about waiting times for tests and cancer treatment. There is information about

 

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. It is difficult 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 don't 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 UK Government is trying to shorten waiting times for treatment in the UK.

 

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 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 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 may need to go to another hospital for your scan, which can increase the length of time you wait.

It can take time for scan results to come through. The length of time 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 cancer 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.

 

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. 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. Most hospitals are meeting this target for most of their patients. 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. 

You will start your treatment sooner if your doctor feels that 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.

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Updated: 7 June 2014