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Postcode lottery in cancer diagnosis

I feel somewhat lucky living where I do.  There is lovely countryside, lots of interesting things to do, and I have read recently  that it is one of the best areas in England for an early diagnosis of cancer.  Early diagnosis of cancer should not be about ‘luck’ or location. The sad reality is, however, that a recent report by Cancer Research UK has highlighted significant regional variations in the diagnosis of all types of cancer across the country.

The Research

Cancer Research UK has collated figures from across England between 2012 and 2013, relating to 377,000 patients. Some of the findings, I think, are somewhat staggering:

• Almost half the cancer patients living in Merseyside (49%) are diagnosed late (at stage 3 or 4), compared to 40% of those living in Bath, Gloucestershire, Swindon and Wiltshire. In other words, 60% of cases in the South West region were detected when the disease was at stage one or two;

• Approximately 1,000 (22%) of breast cancer patients in London were diagnosed late (at stage three or four), compared to just 10% in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire;

• Merseyside also produced the worst statistics in relation to bowel cancer, with almost 60% of patients being diagnosed late, compared to 50% in East Anglia.

Perhaps the most alarming finding for me, however, was that, if the rest of England had the same rates of early diagnosis as the South West, over a period of 2 years, nearly 20,000 more patients would have been diagnosed at stage one or two, instead of three or four when the cancer is more advanced and treatment may be less successful.

#Spot Cancer Sooner

Dr Jodie Moffat, head of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, commented: ‘We don’t know for sure why there’s such variation across England and it’s likely that a lot of factors are coming into play. These might include patients not going to their doctor as early as they could with possible cancer symptoms, and GPs sometimes failing to suspect cancer or not referring patients for diagnostic tests promptly’.

These statistics are released as the charity launches its ‘Spot Cancer Sooner’ Campaign which aims to empower people to recognise the importance of spotting cancer sooner and improve cancer survival rates. The campaign, which runs throughout this month, is designed to show how easy it is for people to ignore changes in their own bodies while living busy lives, and seeking medical advice at the earliest stage possible.

In July, NHS England also published their Cancer Strategy which promised an 80% increase in tests for cancer. One of the strategic priorities is to have the aim that, by 2020, 95% of patients referred for testing by their GP are given a definitive diagnosis or the ‘all clear’ within 4 weeks. The hope is to drive a national ambition to achieve earlier diagnosis amongst cancer patients.

Hope for the future

The standard of care we receive should not be determined by where we live and, unfortunately, these findings indicate an unacceptable, widespread variation.  I have been approached by patients and their families from up and down the country who have been affected by a delay in the diagnosis of cancer, and therefore a delay in the access to the appropriate treatment, when this has occurred due to negligent failings in their medical care, and therefore have seen how this can cause a much worse outcome for the patient.  These delays should be avoidable no matter where we live and I hope, with the combination of these shocking statistics, continued awareness of this life-changing condition and the government’s strategy, that these statistics can be improved drastically.

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