'One in four cancers' detected at emergency stage

Woman having chemotherapy. Pic: Sam Ogden/SPL Experts say the figures may explain the UK's low survival rates compared with other countries

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Nearly one in four cancer patients in England is diagnosed only when they arrive at hospital in an emergency, a national study suggests.

The National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN), which looked at data from diagnoses in 2007, found 23% of cases had been detected at that stage.

In the cases of acute leukaemia and brain cancer, half of cases were only discovered at a critical stage.

Cancer Research UK said more education was needed to recognise symptoms.

The NCIN report suggested those who were diagnosed only at the emergency stage were more likely to die within a year than those diagnosed earlier.

Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, told the Daily Telegraph: "The figure for diagnoses via emergency presentations is way too high.

"This statistic helps explain why we have lower survival rates than we would hope to have, lower than the best countries in Europe.

Start Quote

We hope the government will seriously consider the best way to tackle this problem in their revised cancer strategy”

End Quote Sara Hiom Cancer Research UK

"We need screening programmes to be rolled out as early as possible and GPs given rapid access to the tests that will enable patients to be moved quickly through the system."

The survey suggested those on low incomes, elderly people and the under-25s were the most likely to be diagnosed at a late stage.

Only 3% of skin cancers went undetected until the emergency stage, compared with 58% of brain cancers.

Sara Hiom, director of health information at Cancer Research UK, said the late diagnosis levels were "alarmingly high".

She said: "We hope the government will seriously consider the best way to tackle this problem in their revised cancer strategy, which is due in the coming months."

Gemma Larkin from Cambridge, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and agrees regular scanning would help detection.

She told the BBC: "For a year prior to the diagnosis I had been fobbed off with a diagnosis of stress headache and then early diabetes. It wasn't until I lost the sight in my left eye and was sent for MRI and CT scans that doctors realised my symptoms were a brain tumour.

Regular scanning plea

"Now - 18 months, three surgeries and radiation therapy later - I am still struggling through chemotherapy hoping that this will be the treatment which cures me."

However, the 28-year-old does not blame her GP.

"Brain tumours at my age are rare, so I don't bear a grudge toward my doctors, but regular scanning could reduce the number of cancer related deaths so easily. This would also reduce the pressure on GPs to diagnose with limited facilities available to them."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "We are committed to improving cancer outcomes. Earlier diagnosis is crucial to match the best survival rates in Europe."

Last December, government cancer tsar Professor Mike Richards said the NHS in England needed to get better at diagnosing cancers at an earlier stage if it was to continue to improve survival rates.

He called for a greater focus on one-year survival rates, an indication that cancer was spotted at a treatable stage.

BBC News website readers have been sending in their reaction. Here is a selection of comments:

I was taken to hospital for emergency surgery, as I had acute stomach pains. It took five hours to locate and remove an abscess. However, three months later I was diagnosed with cancer, by which time it had spread to my liver and now I am classified with terminal cancer. My cancer is rare and difficult to diagnose. Many experienced medical people would be unable to recognise the symptoms and presence of such cancers. GPs need to be more informed and better screening for people in high risk age categories. In time it must and will improve. David, County Durham

My father was diagnosed too late, due to complete incompetence. He had symptoms for a long time and following a colonoscopy, which was clear it was decided he suffered from stress. After being rushed into hospital, he had an operation to remove a blockage to discover he actually had Crohns disease, the surgeon said he had probably had it for several years. Two months later when he rang the hospital to chase up an appointment that he had not received, they asked him to go in immediately, apparently they forgot to tell him that he had bowel cancer as well. He died a few months later. Angela, East Yorkshire

In the early part of this year, at the age of 74. I decided to have a test for prostate cancer, after reading a leaflet which suggested this in the doctor's surgery. When I requested to have this test, I was given a leaflet which described the pros and cons of having this test and any necessary cancer treatment, before making an appointment with the GP to get authorisation to have the test. The NHS leaflet warned of all sorts of unpleasant possible results if I had the test, and the tone seemed to discourage men from going ahead with the test. In my view prostate specific antigen (PSA) testing, should be a screening process encouraged by the NHS as it can detect prostate cancer at a treatable stage and late discovery is frequently fatal. I should mention that I have prostate cancer and am now being treated. Brian, South Herefordshire

My husband Kevin, had renal cancer diagnosed way too late. He had a cough for two years but his GP treated him for asthma. Eventually after going private a large tumour was found in his left kidney. It was removed, but the cancer had begun to spread to his lungs. He is currently undergoing treatment and the drugs he is on have proved to be unsuccessful. Tricia, Bristol

My sister died of a brain tumour. She was sent home numerous times. The doctors said she was suffering with vertigo and strong migraines. She was given lots of different drugs, which didn't help. She was later diagnosed with a tumour on the brain stem, which couldn't be treated, yet it took over 3 months before they took it seriously. My mum had sarcoma. She had to wait a long time for a biopsy. She was then told they didn't do it right in the first place and she had to wait three weeks for a second biopsy and another two weeks for the results. All the time my mum got worse and then she died. The NHS has to do more to diagnose these problems sooner. Both my sister and mum had rare cancers which in the end couldn't be treated but there are millions of people who can be helped if diagnosed sooner. Robert, Essex

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