Cancer waiting times

There are waiting time targets for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in the different UK nations. The aim for all healthcare systems within the UK is to make sure that you have a diagnosis and start treatment as soon as possible.

Although there are targets, it’s not possible to say for sure how long it will take in your situation. Ask your GP or your specialist (if you have one). They may be able to give you an idea about waiting times for your area.

Having to wait

Getting a diagnosis of cancer can sometimes take a while. Sometimes it might feel that you are waiting too long. Usually everyone will have to wait for appointments, tests and results. Only then can you start 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 slowly. So waiting a few weeks for a test or treatment does not usually affect how well the treatment works.

The different UK nations have their own targets around:

  • referral for suspected cancer
  • waiting times to a diagnosis
  • waiting times to start treatment

This video explains the different cancer waiting times in England. It is 1 minute and 20 seconds long.

Urgent suspected cancer referral

Your GP, dentist, optometrist (eye doctor) or nurse will arrange your referral to see a hospital doctor (specialist), or to have tests. They should tell you if this is an urgent suspected cancer referral. An urgent referral can be worrying. But remember that more than 9 in every 10 people (more than 90%) referred this way will not have a diagnosis of cancer.

In England, an urgent referral used to mean that you should see a specialist within 2 weeks. From October 2023 this 2 week timeframe was removed as part of a wider NHS England plan. It was replaced by the Faster Diagnosis standard (see below) . A GP will continue to refer someone urgently if they think they might have cancer. This practice won't change. 

GPs have guidelines to help them decide who they should refer. They use these as well as their judgement and experience. The guidelines recommend that some symptoms need more urgent action than other symptoms. For example, some people who are very unwell with suspected leukaemia need a referral within a few hours or a couple of days. Some people with suspected lung cancer need to have an x-ray within 2 weeks. 

You will still see a specialist or have tests as soon as possible. Ask your GP when this is likely to be. Get back in touch with them if you don’t get your appointment within this time.

Waiting for tests

A specialist may need to do a variety of tests to decide on a diagnosis. Sometimes you might have these tests before you see the specialist. You might have a sample (biopsy Open a glossary item) taken of any abnormal area or tissue.

If they diagnose cancer, you may then need further tests. This is 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 healthcare 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 of the high number of people needing certain scans. You might have it sooner if the specialist puts urgent on the test request form.

Some types of specialised tests are only available in larger hospitals. So you might need to go to another hospital for your tests, which can increase the length of time you wait.

Waiting for scan results

A specialist doctor needs to examine your scans and write a report. If you have a biopsy, the tissue is sent to a laboratory. A pathologist Open a glossary item examines the tissue under a microscope. 

A team of doctors and other professionals will meet to discuss your diagnosis and the best treatment for you. They are called a multidisciplinary team (MDT). Your cancer specialist will then explain the results to you. It usually takes a couple of weeks to get your results. 

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 or your specialist nurse if you have not heard anything after a couple of weeks.

Waiting for a diagnosis

England

NHS England has introduced a new target called the Faster Diagnosis Standard (FDS). The target is that you should not wait more than 28 days from referral to finding out whether you have cancer or not. This is part of a wider NHS England plan to focus more on the speed that someone gets their results and diagnosis.

The FDS applies to those people who are referred:

  • by their GP for suspected cancer
  • by their GP with breast symptoms where cancer is not suspected
  • following an abnormal screening result from a cancer screening test

The 3 screening programmes in England are:

  • breast cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • cervical screening

Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales

Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales do not have a Faster Diagnosis Standard target.

Waiting to start treatment

There are waiting time targets to start treatment.

In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland the current targets are:

  • no more than 2 months (62 days) wait between the date the hospital receives an urgent suspected cancer referral 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

In May 2019 Wales introduced the Suspected Cancer Pathway. This combines all urgent and non urgent referrals into one target time of 62 days or less. This means, that when cancer is first suspected, everyone should have a confirmed diagnosis and start treatment within 62 days. The time that cancer is first suspected could be for example:

  • when you first see your GP and they refer you to a specialist or to have tests

  • when you have an abnormal result as part of a screening appointment

  • when you are in hospital in a ward or in the Accident & Emergency (A&E) department

If your cancer comes back

NHS England has a waiting time target for cancer that has come back (a recurrence). They say that you should start treatment within 31 days. This time starts from the meeting in which you and your doctor have agreed your treatment plan.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not set this target. But you will start treatment as soon as possible.

A new primary cancer

In some situations, your doctor may diagnose a new primary cancer instead of a recurrence. If so, you should wait no more than 2 months (62 days) to start treatment. This time starts on the date that the hospital has received an urgent suspected cancer referral.

You might have to wait longer if you need extra tests to diagnose your cancer. Waiting times can vary depending on the type of cancer and the type of treatment you are going to have.

Tell your specialist or nurse if you worry about waiting for treatment. They will understand that you find it hard to wait a few weeks for treatment. They will be able to reassure you. Usually, waiting should not affect how well your treatment works.

  • Guide to NHS waiting times in England

    NHS

    Accessed July 2023

  • Cancer Waiting Times
    Public Health Scotland
    Accessed July 2023

  • Northern Ireland waiting time statistics: cancer waiting times January -March 2023
    Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency

    Accessed July 2023

  • Guidelines for Managing Patients on the Suspected Cancer Pathway
    Welsh Government, 2023

  • NHS Cancer Programme: Faster Diagnosis Framework
    NHS England and NHS Improvement, 2022

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
14 Aug 2023
Next review due: 
14 Aug 2026

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