Early diagnosis

One in two people in England will have a diagnosis of cancer at some point in their lives. We know that early diagnosis is key to survival outcomes; when a cancer is diagnosed at an early stage – and treated – the chance of survival beyond five years is far higher than at a later stage when the cancer has spread.

Last year (2021-2022), over 100,000 patients were diagnosed with cancer at stages one or two when it is easier to treat – the highest proportion on record 1. The latest cancer staging data for 2020 shows that the number of early stage tumor diagnoses in London ranged from 52.9% in North West London ICB to 59.1% in North Central London ICB.

More people also had potentially lifesaving NHS cancer checks, with over 433,000 people seen, which is up by 11% on the same period before the pandemic (391,000 in 2019/20) – with over 1600 checks undergone every day 2.

However, there’s always more that we can do to support earlier diagnosis and, ultimately, save lives.

What are the barriers to early diagnosis?

There are several reasons why cancers are not diagnosed at an earlier stage including:

  • poor awareness about the signs and symptoms of cancer, in particular symptoms which could relate to other health issues like changes in bowel habits or a persistent cough;
  • delays in getting a referral for appropriate tests or getting a hospital appointment;
  • fear of taking up GP time or about what the doctor might find.

What are we doing to ensure that more Londoners are diagnosed early?

We support London’s health and care system by:

  • providing a city-wide approach to urgent suspected cancer referrals;
  • supporting implementation of evidence-based guidance for cancer diagnostics and screening;
  • developing educational resources and amplifying awareness campaigns for both healthcare professionals and patients to promote faster diagnosis at an earlier stage;
  • creating regional data analytics tools to support local quality improvement projects and practice-changing research.

The NHS Long-Term Plan sets out an ambitious target to have three-quarters of all cancers diagnosed at an early stage by 2028. The roll out new Rapid Diagnostic Centres (RDCs), the extension of the current screening programmes (including lower ages for bowel screening, lung health checks and new forms of cervical screening) and the new Faster Diagnosis Standard are some of the ways in which we plan to achieve this.

Within the London region, the Transforming Cancer Services Team (TCST) will be supporting this ambition by sharing best practice across London RDCs and supporting research into novel screening tools such as Cytosponge, Colon Capsule and self-test kits for cervical screening. The team is also improving the urgent suspected cancer referral pathway by embedding advice, guidance and data tools to address local health inequalities.


[1] https://www.england.nhs.uk/cancer/early-diagnosis/

[2] https://www.england.nhs.uk/london/2023/01/09/the-nhs-in-london-treats-more-people-for-cancer-than-pre-pandemic/

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