Researchers based at the Universities of Bangor, Exeter and Durham found that the average time it took to be diagnosed for a range of common cancers combined fell from 125 days in 2001-2002 to 120 days in 2007-2008.
And for kidney, head and neck, and bladder cancers, more than two weeks were shaved off the time between first reporting a possible symptom and receiving a diagnosis.
This improvement may be thanks to the introduction of National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Guidelines for Urgent Referral of Suspected Cancer, published in 2005. These guidelines give GPs advice about symptoms which might indicate cancer and mean the patient should be urgently referred for further testing.
The researchers looked at the GP records of more than 20,000 people over 40 in England who were diagnosed with one of 15 types of common cancers in the two periods, having reported possible symptoms to their GP in the year before their diagnosis.
They also found that patients whose symptoms were prioritised by the 2005 guidelines took less time to be diagnosed, and breast and testicular cancers were diagnosed in the shortest time – on average around two months between first reported symptom and diagnosis.
But there is still plenty of room for improvement. For 10 per cent of myeloma, lung or gastric cancer patients it took over 10 months to be diagnosed, even in the more recent 2007-2008 group.
Professor Greg Rubin, study author from Durham University and clinical lead for cancer for the Royal College of GPs and Cancer Research UK partnership, said: “Diagnosing cancers early can make a real difference to survival. We know that patients’ chances of beating the disease are better when the disease is caught early as treatments are more effective before the cancer begins to grow or spread.”
Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “This study indicates that it’s possible to make a difference to the speed of diagnosis for some cancers through influencing policy to change care pathways.
“For some cancers, we are moving in the right direction when it comes to diagnosing them earlier but it’s a very complex picture and there’s clearly still room for improvement. This is why research and activity to promote the early diagnosis of cancer remains a top priority for Cancer Research UK.”