Cancer patients to be promised diagnosis within three weeks

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Patients who visit the GP with possible signs of cancer will be promised a diagnosis within three weeks, under radical new Government proposals.

The new policy will mean millions more patients will be offered CT and MRI scans via mobile units set up in supermarkets and shopping centres across the country.

The proposal is part of a 10-year plan for the NHS, which is attempting to tackle Britain’s woefully late diagnosis rates from the major killers.

Under the strategy, which focuses on breast, bowel, prostate and lung cancer, doctors will be encouraged to refer patients for immediate tests, instead of patients being forced to endure delays while they are referred to a specialist.

The ‘scan first, ask questions later’ approach is a recognition of the fact that in most cases, a definitive diagnosis cannot be made until such checks are carried out.

Currently most patients with suspected cancer are supposed to start treatment within 62 days. This means many patients are left to worry for weeks or months while waiting for a diagnosis, during which time the disease can spread.

On Tuesday the Health Secretary will tell the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham that improving diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients is vital part of the long-term plan for the NHS.

Matt Hancock is expected to announce that every seriously ill child and millions of adults with cancer will have their genes sequenced in a five-year plan to develop more personalised medicine.

And the Prime Minister is expected to identify cancer as a key priority for the £20bn investment the Government has pledged for the NHS.

Cutting cancer risks | 10 recommendations

  1. Be a healthy weight. Keep your weight within the healthy range and avoid weight gain in adult life
  2. Be physically active. Be physically active as part of everyday life – walk more and sit less
  3. Eat a diet rich in wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and beans. Make wholegrains, vegetables, fruit, and pulses (legumes) such as beans and lentils a major part of your usual daily diet
  4. Limit consumption of ‘fast foods’ and other processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars. Limiting these foods helps control calorie intake and maintain a healthy weight
  5. Limit consumption of red and processed meat. Eat no more than moderate amounts of red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb. Eat little, if any, processed meat
  6. Limit consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks. Drink mostly water and unsweetened drinks
  7. Limit alcohol consumption. For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol
  8. Do not use supplements for cancer prevention. Aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone
  9. For mothers: breastfeed your baby, if you can. Breastfeeding is good for both mother and baby
  10. After a cancer diagnosis: follow our recommendations, if you can. Check with your health professional what is right for you

Source: World Cancer Research Fund

Britain has some of the worst cancer survival rates in western Europe, largely because so many cases of disease are diagnosed late.

One in five patients diagnosed with cancer does not get the diagnosis until symptoms are so severe they have been admitted to hospital via Accident & Emergency departments.

NHS sources said the proposals, which will be detailed in the 10-year plan later this year, aim to dramatically shift the way cancer is treated, with millions more offered CT and MRI scans which in most cases will rule out cancer.

On Monday, the Health Secretary told a fringe meeting: “The NHS does an amazing job on the treatment of cancer … but the area that clearly needs improvement is on diagnosis and ultimately on prevention.

“We are best in class at cure once diagnosed but we are nowhere near where we want to be on diagnosis and on early diagnosis.”

Mr Hancock will announce plans to expand gene sequencing, so that more personalised care can be offered to millions of patients within five years.

From next year, all seriously ill children, including those with suspected genetic disorders and cancer, will be offered genome analysis as part of care.

A million whole genomes will be sequenced by the NHS and the UK Biobank, within five years.

Mr Hancock is expected to tell the conference: “I’m incredibly excited about the potential for this type of technology to improve the diagnosis and treatment for patients to help people live longer, healthier lives, a vital part of our Long Term Plan for the NHS.

“[The] commitments form part of our bold aspiration to sequence five million genomes in the UK, using ground-breaking technology to do this within an unprecedented five-year period.”

“At present, diagnosis happens when we fall ill and seek help from our doctor or nurse but the more genetic information there is the earlier clinicians can predict, diagnose and treat the illness in a way that work best for each patient.

“In many cases, it can take years to diagnose a rare disease, and genomics has the potential to speed this up and reduce the number of invasive tests which patients currently have to undergo.”

Cancer | The tests you need to know about

For bile duct cancer

Helen Moremont, of the charity AMMF, says if you have symptoms of bile duct cancer that don’t improve, ask your GP to run a liver-function test.

For ovarian cancer

An early ovarian cancer-screening tool is in development. ‘In the meantime, if you have symptoms for longer than a 12-day period, ask your GP for a CA125 blood test,’ says Katherine Taylor of Ovarian Cancer Action. ‘It’s a bio-marker test that’s freely available.’

For cervical cancer

Since the early 1990s, cervical cancer incidence rates have decreased by almost a quarter (23 per cent) in the UK. Women aged 25 to 49 are invited for screening every three years; 50 to 64-year-olds are invited every five years. If you experience bleeding between periods, after sex or following the menopause, or have pain during sex or in your pelvis, see your GP.

For bowel cancer

If bowel cancer is detected early, before symptoms appear, it is easier to treat. The NHS offers two types of bowel-cancer screening. Currently, everybody aged 60 to 74 is sent a home- test kit. There is also a one-off test called bowel scope screening (which takes place at NHS bowel-cancer screening centres), which is gradually being introduced in England for those 55 and over.

And finally…

Don’t forget the protective basics: ‘Four in 10 cases of cancer can be prevented. So if you’re a smoker, stop; keep a healthy weight; eat well and stay active,’ says Dr Jasmine Just of Cancer Research UK. ‘Help stack the odds in your favour.’

The NHS Genomic Medicine Service will be launched on Tuesday, meaning that patients will be able to benefit from scientific breakthroughs, and contribute to them.

Patients will be asked to give consent for their genome data to be securely analysed by approved researchers to develop new tests and treatments for cancer, rare diseases and other diseases.

The 10-year plan for the NHS is due to be published later this year, after the Budget.

At the same time the Government will publish a green paper on social care, which is expected to propose a system of “auto enrolment” which means deductions from the pay packets of all workers, to fund social care in later life, unless they opt out.

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