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Hospital waiting lists put lives of cancer patients at risk, says damning report

By Deborah McAleese

Women waiting for urgent breast cancer treatment have had to wait longer to see a specialist as waiting lists for hospital treatment soar, a damning new report has stated.

Lives are being put at risk because a growing number of hospitals are breaching key waiting times for cancer that are meant to ensure speedier diagnoses and treatment in order to maximise patients' chances of survival.

At one point last year just half of urgent breast cancer referrals were seen within the 14-day target, according to a report published today by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

Three years ago 100% of breast cancer patients were seen within two weeks of an urgent referral. By March last year the figure had fallen to under 53%.

"Early diagnoses and treatment is vital. The big thing is being able to get in there early, but that is where the problem lies. I was one of the lucky ones," said Newtownards woman Diane Lockhart, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2014.

The 44-year-old added: "I am proof that cancer is not always a death sentence. I have been through it so I am able to reassure people that it can be treatable. But you can't have long delays when it comes to fighting cancer."

Hospitals also failed to treat the required number of urgent cancer cases within 62 days throughout the whole of 2013-15, the report found.

Over the two-year period the Western Health and Social Care Trust met the 95% target in two of the months and the Southern Trust met the target in one month. No other trust met the target.

"This will have resulted in thousands of patients being forced to wait longer than they should to receive potentially life-saving surgery, cancer drugs or radiotherapy," Stormont health committee member Kieran McCarthy warned.

"These figures are completely shocking and are a cause for very real concern. We have to remember that behind these statistics are real people.

"There are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, friends all being let down by our health service."

The Alliance MLA added: "Lives are being put at risk because of too many delays.

"Speedier diagnosis and treatment are vital to increase chances of survival. The new health minister must deal with this urgently."

Twenty-five people are diagnosed with cancer every day in Northern Ireland. The number of people being diagnosed with cancer is around 8,700 cases per year.

There are around 1,300 cases of breast cancer in women each year and approximately 340 deaths each year. Around 1,200 cases of bowel cancer are reported each year and 1,100 cases of lung cancer. Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said that emergency departments also failed to meet their waiting time targets.

The report found that patients were kept waiting longer than the targeted 12 hours before being either treated and discharged or admitted throughout the whole of 2012-13 and 2013-14.

"HSC trusts have found it increasingly difficult to meet hospital waiting time targts for all types of patient. Of particular concern is the performance of Trusts in meeting targets for cancer treatment," the report stated.

And waiting lists are unlikely to improve, according to the report.

"Hospital performance against waiting time targets has declined over the last two years. With the uncertain future financial position and the anticipated increase in demand on hospitals, HSC trusts look set to struggle to achieve targets," the report said.

Roisin Foster, Chief Executive of Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, said it was very concerning that the trusts have failed to meet the 62 day target, when research clearly shows that early detection and treatment helps save lives.

"It also means that treatment may be less invasive if it starts earlier," she said. "And, of course, waiting times place additional stress on patients who are already coping with the impact of a cancer diagnosis.

“While we understand the pressures that Health Trusts are under, we would urge them to look carefully at their procedures and ensure that the deadlines are met in all cases.

“We are likewise deeply concerned that the number of women seen within two weeks of referral for potential breast cancer has almost halved in two years – from 100% in March 2012 to 53% in March 2014.  This places huge additional strain on women who are already stressed about symptoms which could indicate that they may have breast cancer.” 

‘The big thing is to get in there early, but that’s where the problem lies’

Newtownards mother-of-one Diane Lockhart, who set up a charity supporting Hopeful Hearts Children’s Academy in a Kampala slum, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2014. The 44-year-old health worker has undergone a mastectomy and chemotherapy. When she recovers fully she plans to travel to Uganda with her daughter to volunteer at Hopeful Hearts. She says: 

“Early diagnoses and treatment for breast cancer, or any type of cancer, is vital. The big thing is being able to get in there early, but that seems to be where the problem lies. I was one of the lucky ones.

“In August 2013 I had pain in my breast. For about six months I had put it down to paranoia. One day I was with the doctor for something else and I happened to mention that I had a funny sensation in my breast, like a needle or something. But she could hardly refer me on instinct.

“It was only in July that I noticed a tiny pin prick of discharge. I used to work as a midwife so I was always discussing with new mums how to check their breasts. I was referred immediately. They couldn’t see anything until I had the mammogram. I have since had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery and underwent chemotherapy from January to May.

“I am proof that cancer is not always a death sentence. I have been through it so I am able to reassure people that it can be treatable. But you can’t have long delays when it comes to fighting cancer.

“If you are aware of Copafeel, it is a charity set up by a young girl who was only 24 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because of long delays in diagnoses the cancer had spread and she is at Stage 4, the most advanced stage of cancer.

“Speed in dealing with cancer is necessary. We really can’t have delays. “

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