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Cancer waiting times

The different UK nations have set targets for waiting times for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Hospitals should work towards these targets.

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.

Within the UK, there are targets for maximum waiting times to start treatment. The different UK nations have their own targets around referral for suspected cancer and waiting times to a diagnosis.

Urgent referral for suspected cancer

Your GP might arrange for you to see a hospital doctor (specialist) urgently because you have symptoms that could be due to cancer. This can be very worrying, but it’s important to know that 9 in every 10 people (90%) referred this way will not be diagnosed with cancer. 

In England, an urgent referral means that you should see a specialist within 2 weeks. In Northern Ireland, the 2 week wait ONLY applies if you are referred for suspected breast cancer.

This 2 week time limit does not exist in Scotland and Wales. But wherever you live, you are seen as quickly as possible.

Waiting for tests

A specialist may need to do a variety of tests to decide on a diagnosis. If cancer is diagnosed, you may then need further tests to get as much information about the cancer as possible.

For example, your specialist might arrange a scan such as a CT scan, MRI scan or PET scan. 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 medical team to 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 write 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 specialist puts urgent on the scan request form.

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

Waiting for a diagnosis


NHS England are working towards a new target called the Faster Diagnosis Standard (FDS). The target is that people should not have to wait more than 28 days from a referral to finding out whether or not they have cancer. This is part of an initiative by NHS England to make sure patients don’t have to wait too long to find out about their diagnosis.
Hospitals in England are being encouraged to start using this target now and to collect information about the numbers and types of cancers that are diagnosed within this target. Hospitals don’t have to collect this information until April 2019. From April 2020 they will then have to show they are meeting the target..

The FDS will apply to those people who have been referred urgently to see a specialist through one of the following:

  • the 2 week urgent referral
  • the urgent screening programme pathway

The urgent screening programme pathway is when people have been referred for further urgent assessment following an abnormal result as part of one of the 3 screening programmes in England:

  • breast cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • cervical screening

Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales

At the moment, healthcare systems in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have not set this target.

Waiting to start treatment

In an ideal world, people would start treatment within a month of being diagnosed. Waiting time targets have been set by the health services in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 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. Waiting times can vary depending on the type of cancer and the type of treatment you are going to have. 

Let your specialist 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.