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    Deadly cancer treatment delays now ‘routine’ in NHS, say damning reports

    By Andrew Gregory Health editor,

    NHS staff are being hampered by a worsening workforce crisis and a chronic lack of equipment. Photograph: Jeff Moore/PA

    Hundreds of thousands of people are being forced to wait months to start essential cancer treatment, with deadly delays now “routine” and even children struck by the disease denied vital support, according to a series of damning reports.

    Health chiefs, charities and doctors have sounded the alarm over the state of cancer care in the UK as three separate studies painted a shocking picture of long waits and NHS staff being severely hampered by a worsening workforce crisis and a chronic lack of equipment.

    Prof Pat Price, an oncologist and co-founder of the Catch Up With Cancer campaign, said the reports told “a deadly story of delays”, adding: “Cancer patients not getting their treatment on time is a disaster.”

    The first report, by Cancer Research UK, found that 382,000 cancer patients in England were not treated on time since 2015. The charity investigated how many patients had begun treatment 62 days or longer after being urgently referred for suspected cancer. The national NHS target – under which at least 85% of people should start treatment within 62 days – was last met in December 2015.

    The second report, by the Royal College of Radiologists (RCR), said delays in cancer care had become routine, with nearly half of UK cancer centres experiencing weekly delays in starting treatment. The RCR also warned of a “staggering” 30% shortfall in clinical radiologists and a 15% shortfall in clinical oncologists – figures it projects will get worse in the next few years.

    The third paper, from four children’s cancer charities – Young Lives vs Cancer, Teenage Cancer Trust, Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, and Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group – said young patients were being failed by a lack of support after diagnosis.

    The Cancer Research UK report said hospitals were struggling with too few workers and a lack of diagnostic equipment such as CT and MRI scanners.

    Naser Turabi, the charity’s director of evidence, said the crisis was causing widespread treatment delays that “negatively impact” patients. “One study has estimated that a four-week delay to cancer surgery led to a 6-8% increased risk of dying, and delays can also reduce the treatment options that are available. There are also the psychological effects – with waiting causing major stress and anxiety for cancer patients and their loved ones.”

    Michelle Mitchell, the charity’s chief executive, urged political parties campaigning in the general election to focus on how they would end the “unbearably long waits”. “Any incoming UK government must make tackling cancer waits a top priority, and pledge to meet all cancer waiting time targets by the end of the next parliament.”

    The RCR report was based on surveys of UK cancer chiefs and radiology directors. It found cancer centres experiencing severe delays had almost doubled in a year, with 47% facing weekly delays in administering chemotherapy, up from 28% in 2022.

    The crisis was the same in radiotherapy, with weekly treatment delays nearly doubling from 22% in 2022 to 43% in 2023. Almost all (97%) of the radiology directors said workforce shortages were causing backlogs and delays at their place of work.

    The RCR president, Dr Katharine Halliday, said: “Today’s reports reveal a stark reality: the crisis in the radiology and oncology workforce is jeopardising patients’ health … severe workforce shortages are significantly hindering our efforts.”

    Meanwhile, the third report, focusing on the needs and wellbeing of children and young people with cancer and their families, identified huge gaps in support and areas that require transformation.

    Frank Fletcher, the chief executive of the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, said: “For too long too many young people and their families have fallen between the gaps and missed out on getting the vital support they need when they need it during the most worrying and stressful time imaginable.”

    The NHS said it was seeing and treating record numbers of people for cancer, with 30% more people treated last year than in 2015-16.

    The Conservatives said survival rates were improving, but acknowledged there was “more to do”. The Liberal Democrats said delays had hit “the worst levels on record”.

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