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Number of people tested for cancer rises to almost 3 million

The number of people tested was up by around 5% in the previous year and 26% in the same period in 2018-2019 before COVID-19

The latest NHS data reported that almost 3 million people in England were tested for cancer in 2022, a 133% increase in the decade since 2013.

The new analysis also shows that October 2023 was the highest month on record for cancer checks, with 269,492 urgent referrals.

Dame Cally Palmer, the national cancer director for NHS England, said the figures were a testament to the hard work of NHS staff despite an ‘extremely challenging year and unprecedented industrial action’. ‘We know there is more to do, but we have been throwing everything we have at catching cancers earlier because we know it’s the best way to save lives,’ she said.

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The NHS has been sending mobile trucks to shopping centres and supermarket car parks to check the lung health of people, while new cancer awareness messages have been displayed in places like pub toilets and on underwear packaging.

However, health experts have questioned the value of the figures, noting that the NHS is failing to meet cancer targets and many patients are waiting too long for treatment.

In October 2023, more than 78,500 - or 29% - had to wait longer than the four-week target to then find out if they had cancer. Moreover, only 63.1% of patients started treatment within two months of an urgent referral, well under the 85% target and below the 64% recorded in October 2022.

‘These figures are in danger of being just smoke and mirrors. The brutal reality is that we are in the worst cancer care crisis in my lifetime. We are continuing to miss all the key cancer targets by significant margins, month in, month out,’ said Professor Pat Price, a leading oncologist and the co-founder of the #CatchUpWithCancer campaign.

Responding to the criticisms, NHS England said in 2024, it would ‘pivot back to the 62-day target for urgent cancer referrals and expect significant improvements against it’.

Health minister Andrew Stephenson said survival rates across all types of cancer had been improving but the health service needed to go ‘further and faster’.

‘The UK government is growing the cancer workforce, has carried out over five million additional tests in its 141 community diagnostic centres since June 2021, and is introducing a new law to stop those who turned 14 in 2023 or younger from ever being legally sold tobacco,’ said Stephenson.