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Cancer waiting list in Northern Ireland at worst level in history

By Allan Preston

New figures showing that a third of cancer patients in Northern Ireland wait too long for treatment are the worst since records began, a leading cancer charity has said.

The latest waiting times published by the Department of Health show that in September last year only 232 out of 365 patients (63.6%) were first treated within 62 days following an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer.

This trails well behind the target figure of 95%.

It compares to a previous Department of Health report in September 2012 which showed 80% of cancer patients in the same situation were seen within 62 days.

Margaret Carr from Cancer Research UK in Northern Ireland said the 95% target has never been met and called on the Health Minister Michelle O'Neill to take urgent action.

"Cancer is Northern Ireland's biggest killer," she said. "The lives of patients depend on swift, efficient and effective access to cancer services. Every extra day waiting is stacking the odds in cancer's favour."

Responding yesterday, Mrs O'Neill said she agreed that excessive waiting times for cancer patients were "totally unacceptable".

She said the Health and Social Care Board was working with health trusts to reduce waiting times.

"The overall position for cancer survival rates are better now than they ever have been. Survival rates have improved from 43% in 1993-99, to 54.3% in 2005-09," she said.

"This improvement in survival is, in no small part, due to earlier diagnosis as well as access to better treatment and we therefore need to build on this."

Mrs O'Neill said that as our population lives longer, increased pressure on cancer services are "inevitable".

The minister said she believed her vision for changes in the Health Service - Delivering Together, which implements new models of care - was the best way to reduce waiting times.

Yesterday, many others voiced their concerns. Roisin Foster, head of Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, said: "Our message that early diagnosis and treatment saves lives is being compromised by these very worrying statistics.

"Waiting times have already been addressed as part of the Bengoa report and we want to see those recommendations implemented as soon as possible. For many cancer patients time is not a luxury they can afford."

The Patient and Client Council said in a statement: "The health service needs to ensure not only timely treatment but also accurate information is provided to patients on when they will receive that treatment".

UUP MLA Robbie Butler called the situation "frightening" adding: "It is unbelievable that in 2017 we are still urging the minister to better focus her efforts on cancer prevention, early detection and timely treatment."

Alliance health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw MLA said she was shocked by the figures and said there could be no delay for a cancer strategy and waiting lists plan.

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