Many with suspected cancer wait months to undergo treatment
More than two-thirds of patients with an urgent referral for suspected cancer had to wait at least two months to start treatment between January and March this year.
An average of 69.9% of patients started treatment within 62 days during the period, according to the latest research. The official target is 95%.
Out of the 95 patients who were forced to wait longer than 62 days in March, 35 were diagnosed with urological cancer and 16 with lower gastrointestinal cancer.
While women suspected of having breast cancer saw experts slightly quicker, they still faced a postcode lottery. Around 88.4% of patients red-flagged for an urgent referral were seen within two weeks in March. This was an improvement from 71% in January. However, it still missed the target that all women should be seen within 14 days.
In March the Belfast Trust was able to treat 67% of women within two weeks. This was an improvement compared to just 37% in January. The South Eastern Trust also dropped from treating 98% of referrals to 75% within three months.
Cancer Research's Margaret Carr said the figures were "unacceptable" and caused people "unnecessary anxiety".
"It is vital patients are diagnosed early and treated swiftly, giving them the best chance of success," she explained.
"Cancer treatment waiting times are a good barometer of how well services are performing, so it's unacceptable that these targets haven't been met.
"With the number of people being diagnosed set to rise, we need a new cancer strategy to outline how the health service will cope with increased demand."
The UUP's health spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson said the latest figures showed the situation was "wholly inexcusable". "It is simply not good enough that, for instance, so many women who are red-flagged for suspected breast cancer are not being seen within the 14-day timeframe," she added.
"Most shocking, however, is the revelation that of the 95 patients who were forced to wait longer than 62 days, 35 were diagnosed with urological cancer and 16 were diagnosed with lower gastrointestinal cancer.
"An earlier diagnosis may well have improved the long-term prognosis for these patients.
"The scale of the disease, and the even greater prominence it is going to display over the years to come, means that cancer prevention, early detection and timely treatment must remain a top priority within the health agenda for Northern Ireland.
"Unfortunately, by not having enough specialist cancer nurses and not replacing cancer consultants when they retire, efforts to get to grips with the disease are being repeatedly undermined, and until they are resolved cancer patients are still going to be exposed to harm."