Cancer patient left 'fighting' to see GP amid worst NHS waiting times ever

Shirley Cochrane was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2018. Credit: Handout

Words by ITV News' Sarika Gandhi

"It feels like somebody has pulled everything out from underneath you, you're left hanging with no answers, nobody to speak to, you are totally left abandoned."

In November 2016, Shirley Cochrane was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. She subsequently received active treatment, but NHS backlogs then left Shirley unable to see her specialist consultant.

Talking to ITV News from her home in Essex the 58-year-old spoke about the mental and physical strain the wait took on her and her family.

"I'd lie awake worrying the cancer had come back," she said.

Shirley is not alone. Following NHS England's report on cancer wait times for December 2022, Macmillan Cancer Support confirmed waiting times for cancer patients are now the worst on record.

Shirley tells ITV News about her experience

In 2022 alone, over half a million people in England waited for more than two weeks to see a specialist following an urgent GP referral. That is more than 10 times as many as a decade ago.

Shirley was left "fighting, phoning up every single week, asking for clarification" about her treatment from healthcare professionals.

She was told that if she needed to speak with a GP or consultant, she would have go back through the referral process - a prospect she found deeply worrying as the two-week wait times are not being met.

Shirley Cochrane, 58, from Essex who was left waiting to see healthcare professionals. Credit: Handout

With the situation becoming desperate, Shirley felt she had no choice but to contact her local MP.

Following their intervention, Shirley eventually secured a GP appointment.

At the end of January, she was referred to a specialist and prescribed tablets for another five years to treat her cancer diagnosis.

But the number of cancer patients waiting to start their treatment has grown around five times faster over the past 10 years than the total number of people being treated, Macmillan found.

As a result, the charity has called upon the government to "stop sidestepping its responsibility for such systemic failures within cancer care".

Data compares the average number of people waiting more than two weeks to see a cancer specialist in a decade. Credit: NHS England/ Macmillan

Executive Director of Advocacy and Communications at Macmillan Cancer Support, Steven McIntosh said: "There are also still thousands of people left with their lives hanging in the balance who continue to be neglected by the UK government's failure to bring in measures desperately needed to recover cancer services."

In response, an NHS England spokesperson told ITV News: "We need to increase capacity to meet the record demand, but recent efforts mean the NHS is now diagnosing more cancers at an early stage when they’re easier to treat than ever before."

What is the current guidance for NHS cancer wait times?

According to NHS England the maximum waiting time for suspected cancer is two weeks from the day the appointment is booked.

NHS England have also introduced the Faster Diagnosis Standard, a target which means patients should not wait more than a month from referral to find out whether they have cancer or not.

Why is the two-week window so important for cancer diagnosis?

The two-week window allows both early reassurance that cancer has not been diagnosed or early diagnosis and access to treatment.

NHS England note how earlier diagnosis is critical, and means patients can receive treatment when there is a better chance of achieving a complete cure. 

Although Shirley has finished treatment and is on medication to help her, she tells ITV News that her biggest worry now is her cancer coming back.

If you been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can visit Macmillan for support and advice.

Shirley explains she is worried that her cancer might come back

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know...