Northern Ireland's cancer patients 'let down' by waiting times
Figures show targets were missed by all health trusts
A third of patients with suspected cancer are being forced to wait too long for treatment as waiting times continue to deteriorate.
The latest waiting time figures show that only 66.7% of patients with an urgent referral for suspected cancer started treatment within 62 days during October until December last year.
All of Northern Ireland's health trusts missed the waiting time target of 95% for the last quarter in 2017.
Cancer Research UK described it as "extremely disappointing" and said patients are being "let down".
The latest figures show that in December 2017, 348 patients commenced first treatment for cancer following an urgent referral for suspect cancer.
Of these, 66.4% - 231 patients - started first treatment within 62 days.
This compares with 66.0% - 280 out of 424 patients - in November 2017.
The figures also show that 80.7% of patients in December were first seen within 14 days following an urgent referral for suspect breast cancer.
This is a decrease from 81.5% seen within 14 days in October 2017 and compared with 91.4% of patients seen in December 2016.
In December 2017, 1,408 new referrals for suspect breast cancer were received; this compares to 1,933 in November 2017 and 2,015 in October 2017.
Of those new referrals for suspect breast cancer in December 2017, 1,011 were classified as urgent.
Compared to 12 months ago, the two key targets which cancer services are measured against have both worsened.
Cancer Research UK said that the 95% target set in 2009 has never been met across Northern Ireland.
Margaret Carr, Cancer Research UK's public affairs manager for Northern Ireland, said: "Once again we have the extremely disappointing news that these targets have not been met. In fact, they've never been met in over eight years, and the delays are getting worse. Patients are being let down.
"Some people are waiting too long to find out whether they have cancer and for treatment to begin which is a distressing time for them and their families.
"Health staff are working in a difficult environment and doing their best for patients, but the lack of an Assembly and Executive means there's no current cancer strategy or plan of action to transform Northern Ireland's cancer services.
"Some of this year's recently announced additional funding for health transformation should be set aside to improve cancer services.
"It's crucial we see progress on this as soon as possible."
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs said the latest cancer waiting times illustrates the "human tragedy" that grips the local health service.
He said: "Cancer is a disease that thrives in a vacuum, so the sooner it is detected and treatment can begin, the better the chance a patient has of a successful outcome.
"It is deeply disheartening therefore to learn that the latest cancer waiting times have suffered a further major deterioration.
"The situation is especially bad in relation to breast cancer services in parts of Northern Ireland. The supposedly rigid government-set target is that every single urgent breast cancer referral should be seen within 14 days.
"In spite of this, across the Southern Trust area which covers th e area around Dungannon, Craigavon and Newry, the average across the last three months in 2017 was shockingly less than 37%."