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Women less likely to have cancer surgery if emergency diagnosis

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Breast cancer patients are four times less likely to have potentially lifesaving surgery if they are diagnosed as an emergency rather than through an urgent GP referral, according to a study.

The study is the first of its kind that looks at how treatment varies across cancers depending on the patients’ route to diagnosis.

The study, by Cancer Research UK and Public Health England’s National Cancer Intelligence Network, looked at the proportion of patients having major surgery for 20 cancer sites. Researchers compared urgent GP referral to the other routes to diagnosis.

“These data provide valuable insight into who is and who isn’t having surgery as part of their treatment for cancer”

Sara Hiom

It showed that the difference in the proportions of patients either having major surgery or missing out was greatest for breast cancer.

Only 20% of breast cancer patients had surgery if they were diagnosed through an emergency presentation at hospital. But this increased to around 80% if the disease was diagnosed following an urgent two-week referral from their GP.

Patients with kidney cancer had the second biggest difference with around 30% having surgery when diagnosed as an emergency, rising to 70% in those diagnosed via urgent GP referral.

Overall, the proportion of cancer patients who had major surgery after an emergency diagnosis in hospital was lower than after an urgent GP referral for 19 of the 20 cancer types examined in the report.

Cancer of the larynx was the only cancer where the proportion of major surgery is similar for both diagnosis routes.

Dr Mick Peake, lead clinician at the National Cancer Intelligence Network, said: “These findings offer two key messages – that earlier diagnosis is crucial to improve cancer survival, and that all cancer patients being admitted as an emergency must be assessed by the appropriate specialist team to ensure they receive the optimum treatment.”

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said: “These data provide valuable insight into who is and who isn’t having surgery as part of their treatment for cancer.

“It reinforces the fundamental need to avoid late diagnosis as those diagnosed as a result of an emergency presentation to hospital are more likely to be diagnosed with advanced stage disease when surgery is less likely to be an option,” she added.

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