Your urgent cancer referral explained

woman talking to health professional

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, you may have to wait longer for your urgent cancer referral. Your first appointment may be over the phone, a video call or at the hospital. Hospital staff will let you know when and how you have this. It’s important that you keep your appointment, so do let them know if you need to change it.

We know it is difficult waiting for appointments and results. It might help to know what to expect and think of what questions to ask.
 

On this page you can read about

What is an urgent referral?

Your GP has arranged for you to see a hospital doctor (specialist) urgently. This is to investigate your symptoms further. You might have some tests to find out what is wrong and whether or not it could be cancer.

How quickly will I be seen?

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, you may have to wait longer for your appointment. Some of the UK nations have targets around 
how quickly you would normally be seen, but there may be delays at this time.

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 frame is not part of the waiting time targets for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But wherever you live, you are seen as quickly as possible.

Ask your GP when you are likely to get an appointment.

Does this mean I have cancer?

It is normal to worry when you are urgently referred to see a specialist by your GP. However, more than 9 in every 10 people (90%) referred this way will not be diagnosed with cancer.

What happens once I’ve been referred?

Depending on where you live, you might get your appointment by phone, post or email.

During the pandemic, your first appointment may be over the phone, a video call or it might be at the hospital. Hospital staff will let you know when and how you have this. It’s important that you keep your appointment, so do let them know if you need to change it.

Check your GP has your current contact details. If your symptoms get worse, tell your GP. 

If you don’t get your appointment details within a week, contact your GP surgery (or a local contact number if you have been provided with one). Tell them it’s an urgent suspected cancer referral.

Going to your hospital appointment

Your appointment letter will include: the time, where to go, who you’re seeing and anything you need to do to prepare.

You may be sent straight for tests, or you might see a specialist first. You may need to describe your symptoms again. It could help to write things down in advance. 

Going to hospital might feel different at the moment. Find out about going into hospital during the coronavirus.pandemic.

Handy Hints

  • Make sure you know where you’re going. Allow extra time in case it takes longer than you expect.
  • Take the appointment letter with you, it includes important information such as your hospital number and NHS number.
  • Think about arranging things like transport and childcare for the day of your appointment.
  • Book time off work as soon as possible – check with your employer if you need to take it as leave, the Citizens Advice website has more information about your rights.
  • Check if you can take a family member or friend with you for support.
  • Bring a pen and paper to write things down. It can be useful to look back at later. 
  • After some tests you may not be able to drive yourself home, your letter will tell you if you can’t drive.
  • Make sure your mobile phone is fully charged. 

What questions can I ask the specialist?

Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to ask your specialist. Here are a few ideas that might make it easier:

  • If my symptoms get worse, who should I contact?
  • Should I make any changes to the medicines I’m taking?
  • What tests will I need to have?
  • How long will the tests take?
  • What will the tests feel like?
  • Do the tests have any side effects?
  • How long will it take to get my test results?
  • What am I being tested for and what are you looking for?
  • How reliable are the tests?
  • Who will give me the test results?
  • If I have questions after the appointment, who should I ask?

I’m having tests, what will they be like?

There are a number of different tests depending on what symptoms you have. You can find information about tests on our Cancer Tests pages.

The appointment letter will include details of any tests you will have and any preparations you need to make. You may need to have more than one test. Call the number on your letter if you have any questions.

The people who do your tests may not be able to give you any immediate information about your test results. 

Getting my results

Your specialist, or sometimes your GP, will explain your results. 

You may need to have further tests. If you have another appointment, check if you can take a family member or friend with you.

The time it takes to receive your results varies – you may have to wait several weeks.

If you have been waiting for your results for longer than expected contact your GP surgery (or a local contact number if you have been provided with one)

How soon will I get a diagnosis and start treatment? 

NHS England is working towards a new target called the Faster Diagnosis Standard (FDS). This means, you should find out whether you have cancer or not within 28 days of your referral. You can ask your GP about this if you live in England.  

Ideally, people would start treatment within a month of diagnosis. There are waiting time targets to start treatment. These are slightly different depending on where you live in the UK.

Unfortunately due to the pandemic, it may take a bit longer to get a diagnosis and start treatment. 

Go to more information about these waiting times.

What happens next?

If you are diagnosed with cancer you will be given lots of information. Your doctor or nurse will tell you what the next steps are. 

If you aren’t diagnosed with cancer, it’s still important that you pay attention to your body. Tell your GP if you notice any new and unusual changes or if your symptoms don’t get better.

A health scare makes some people think about improving their general health, for example by keeping a healthy weight or stopping smoking. You can find out more on our health pages. These things reduce the risk of cancer. You can also consider screening when you are invited.

Where can I find out more and who can I talk to for support?

You can find out more about your diagnosis and treatment options on our cancer type pages.

For information and support you can call our confidential Cancer Research UK helpline, staffed by experienced nurses. They are available Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm on 0808 800 4040.

It really can help to speak to someone about what you are going through and any worries. 

Your local hospital may have a support or information centre. These centres are available for anyone affected by cancer. They have people you can talk to and provide written information. You can also ask your GP surgery for details of local counselling services and support groups. 

For more information about local services in different parts of the UK, you can visit

You can also find this information as a leaflet on our publications page. This includes a specific leaflet for those living in Wales.

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