Britain has one of the lowest cancer survival rates in Western Europe. It is eighth from the bottom in the league table which compares cancer survival rates in 35 Western nations.

The main cause of poor cancer survival rates in the UK is that almost half of cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage when treatment is less likely to work. These delays in diagnosing and treating cancer result in up to 10,000 avoidable deaths every year. It is estimated that around 5,000 lives could be saved each year in England by making an earlier diagnosis of cancer.

In an attempt to tackle these serious issues, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued new guidance for general practitioners, who are the “first point of call” for any health issues in the community. These new guidelines include a checklist of hundreds of symptoms which could be indicative of cancer and provide instructions on what investigations and / or specialist referrals need to be made, and within what timescales. 

NICE has stated that GPs have not been given enough help to identify potential cancers and to know which disease to look up. While most GPs know what to do about obvious signs of cancer such as breast lumps and coughing up blood, other more subtle signals such as abdominal pain and sensations of fullness were more likely to be missed.

Professor Willie Hamilton, one of the doctors responsible for producing the new guidance, said: “It will open the door for smarter testing so that people with cancer will receive their diagnosis much earlier. There is no doubt in my mind that this guideline will help to save lives.”

Naomi Holland, an associate in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team, said: “We welcome the guideline and hope that it will ultimately help more patients suffering with all types of cancers to benefit from earlier diagnosis and improved survival rates.

“Sadly, we often see clients who have attended their family doctor on numerous occasions reporting symptoms out of the ordinary for them, but no action is taken to investigate their concerns. Consequently, there are significant delays in obtaining their appropriate diagnosis and treatment, which can have devastating consequences. Hopefully, these new guidelines will address any gaps in knowledge and will improve the way in which Britain delivers care to cancer patients.”

Click here for more information about the NICE guidance.