Hundreds of Derby and Burton patients who may have breast cancer are having to wait more than two weeks for assessments.
Medics are supposed to see patients referred by their GP within 14 days, but four out of five patients are having to wait longer.
Cancer Research UK has called this “extremely concerning” and “unacceptable” and says an early diagnosis “can be the difference between life and death”.
It says that a workforce shortage is a “large contributor” influencing how early or late a patient is diagnosed.
It says around 6,200 patients in the East Midlands a year are diagnosed with cancer when it has already reached an advanced stage – too late to give them the best chance of survival.
The charity says: “There is a desperate shortage of NHS medical staff trained to carry out tests that diagnose cancer.
“This means that efforts by the health system to diagnose and treat cancer more swiftly are being thwarted.”
The organisation which runs Derby and Burton’s hospital has an aim to see patients who have been given urgent referrals from their GP within two weeks.
Its aim is to see 95 per cent of these patients within their respective two-week referral.
However, in April, May and June the University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust (UHDB) missed its target, with fewer than one in five potential cancer patients being seen within two weeks in each respective month.
In June alone, 449 patients were referred to UHDB for two week breast cancer appointments – but 361 were not seen within that time.
Meanwhile, again in June, 198 patients were referred for urgent breast symptom issues – not strictly suspected breast cancer – but 160 were not seen within two weeks.
Papers published by the Derby and Derbyshire Clinical Commissioning Group say that the average number of monthly referrals for breast related issues – including suspected cancer – to UHDB has increased by 31 per cent each year for the past couple of years.
In 2016 there was an average of 384 referrals per month – but this has nearly doubled and as of July this year there were 726 referrals.
The CCG says that the trust is having issues with consultant oncology capacity as a result of the increasing referral rates.
Of the 361 patients with suspected breast cancer referrals, 340 were not seen due to “capacity issues”.
Of the 160 patients with suspected breast symptom referrals, 150 were also not seen due to “capacity issues”.
UHDB says that its latest figures, which are not yet public, have improved and it is now meeting its target for patients seen within 14 days – 95 per cent.
Mike Goodwin, divisional director of cancer, diagnostics and clinical support, said: “It is absolutely vital that we are able to diagnose cancer cases as quickly as possible.
“Improving the identification of cancer at an early stage is an important part of the NHS Long Term Plan, as detecting and treating cancer at an early stage can significantly improve the prognosis of our patients.
“There has been an increase in the number of breast cancer referrals and we have introduced a number of initiatives to manage this increase in demand, including providing extra outpatient clinics at our breast units at the Royal Derby Hospital and Queen’s Hospital Burton.
“At the ‘one-stop’ clinics, patients receive a single appointment where a mammogram and other tests, are combined with a consultation with a doctor, in order to provide patients with support and to help quickly diagnose any conditions.”
Emma Greenwood, Cancer Research UK’s director of policy, said: “It’s unacceptable that so many people are diagnosed late. Although survival has improved, it’s not happening fast enough.”
Matt Case, Cancer Research UK’s policy manager, said: “Waiting for a potential cancer diagnosis is a worrying time so it’s concerning that the University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust doesn’t have capacity to meet the two-week wait for breast symptoms.
“But it’s positive that the Trust was meeting other targets, and in June treated 100 per cent of breast cancer patients within 62 days of their diagnosis.
“Figures like these show the NHS continues to be under immense strain.
“To have any chance of meeting its ambitions for early diagnosis, the Government needs to invest to make sure we have enough key cancer staff now and in the future.”
Gunes Kalkan, head of policy and evidence at Breast Cancer Care and Breast Cancer Now, said: “It is extremely concerning that the majority of women being referred to University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust with breast symptoms were not seen by a specialist within two weeks.
“It is unacceptable that the two-week wait targets, both where breast cancer is and isn’t initially suspected, have been missed for the third month in a row, falling well below target each time.
“The wait to see a specialist is a worrying time already, so delays can make this particularly agonising.
“It is critical women are given a definitive answer as soon as possible, to either provide peace of mind or allow them to begin treatment at the earliest stage.
“It’s encouraging the hospital trust is exploring ways to increase capacity in the workforce, and we now need to see clear steps taken to urgently improve the situation.
“As proposed new targets begin to be tested across the NHS, we cannot lose sight of the importance of minimising current waiting times for patients and their families.
“We look forward to the results of the testing to fully understand the impact of any changes to the current targets and ensure that they will tangibly improve patient experience of diagnosis.”
The NHS says that about one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime but there is a good chance of full recovery if it is detected in its early stages.
It says that it is vital that women check their breasts regularly for any changes and always get any changes examined by their GP. In rare cases, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer.
For more information, visit: www.nhs.uk/conditions/breast-cancer/diagnosis