One in four cancers 'detected late'
A quarter of cancers in England are only discovered at a late stage when patients are admitted to hospital for emergency treatment, research from the National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) suggests.
Timely diagnosis is vital, as cancer is usually much easier to treat when it is caught early.
But the NCIN analysis of all patients diagnosed with malignant cancer in 2007 shows that 23 per cent of newly diagnosed cases entered the system as emergency presentations.
The research also shows that one-year survival rates were much lower for patients who were diagnosed at a critical stage than for those whose cancer was spotted early, such as through screening.
Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, told the Daily Telegraph that the figure for diagnoses via emergency presentations is "way too high".
"This statistic helps explain why we have lower survival rates than we would hope to have, lower than the best countries in Europe," he said.
"We need screening programmes to be rolled out as early as possible and GPs given rapid access to the tests that will enable patients to be moved quickly through the system."
The NCIN research looked at all English patients who were diagnosed with malignant cancer in 2007, excepting those with non-melanoma skin cancer and multiple tumours.
Across all types of cancer, 23 per cent of patients presented as emergencies, either via A&E, emergency GP referral, emergency consultant outpatient referral, emergency transfer, emergency admission or attendance.
A further 25 per cent were diagnosed through the Two Week Wait (urgent GP referral with a suspicion of cancer).
The route to diagnosis varied depending on the type of cancer, according to the figures.
For instance, just four per cent of breast cancer patients were diagnosed through emergency presentation, with 42 per cent diagnosed after urgent GP referral and 21 per cent following routine screening.
In contrast, 57 per cent of acute leukaemia patients and 58 per cent of patients with brain tumours were diagnosed following emergency presentation.
Researchers found that under-25s, over-75s and people from poor socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to present as emergencies than the rest of the population.
The report also revealed that, for all cancer types except from acute leukaemia, the likelihood of surviving for at least a year after diagnosis was lower for patients presenting as emergencies.
Professor Sir Mike Richards, national cancer director and director of the NCIN project, told the Daily Telegraph that the overall figure of 23 per cent had been "quite a surprise".
"We need to look at this group of patients and see what we can do to reduce the proportion coming in as emergencies," he said.
Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of health information, said: "This is the first time we've had an indication of the proportion of cancer patients diagnosed through A&E - and the sheer number, particularly those with brain cancer and acute leukaemia, seems alarmingly high. People diagnosed through this route are more likely to have advanced stages of the disease which means their chances of survival are lower.
"We know that spotting cancer early can make all the difference to the outcome. And we're working hard to raise public awareness of the early signs and symptoms of cancer and to ensure that GPs have clear guidance on who and when to refer. It's also important that people take up their screening invitations. These new data show us there's a real opportunity to reduce the numbers of cancers diagnosed this way.
"We hope the government will seriously consider the best way to tackle this problem in their revised cancer strategy, which is due in the coming months. We also need to monitor these data over time so we can assess how quickly we are making progress."