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Delays persist in pancreatic cancer referrals

24 February 2012

The leaders of a major study into the diagnosis of cancers have called for a much greater research focus on uncommon cancers, such as pancreatic cancer.

The study, published in The Lancet Oncology, was based on 41,299 cancer patients treated at 158 hospitals across England who had taken part in the National Cancer Patient Survey 2010. It found large variations in the speed at which certain cancers are referred by GPs to specialists and has called for better training and support for GPs. The study was led by Dr Lyratzopoulos, from the University of Cambridge. He said, "Medical research in recent decades has prioritised improving cancer treatments, but knowledge about the 'symptom signature' of common cancers and practical solutions on how best to diagnose them is still emerging."

The investigators looked at 24 different cancers and found that more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of cancer patients are referred to hospital after only one or two consultations with a GP. However, the rate of referral was much slower for uncommon cancers including: pancreatic cancer, multiple myeloma, stomach and lung cancer. In fact, 41.3 per cent of pancreatic patients had delayed referral compared to just 7.4 per cent of breast cancer patients, and patients suffering from multiple myeloma were 18 times more likely than those with breast cancer to have delayed referral.

The research highlights a problem in identifying rare cancers that may present with common symptoms. Co-author Prof Rubin, professor of general practice at Durham University, said: “here the challenge is to ensure the possibility of cancer is considered in a timely way.”  The probability of delayed referral was also greater for younger patients, ethnic minorities and women.

The Department of Health has committed £450 million to help diagnose cancer earlier and achieve their goal of saving 5000 extra lives every year. 

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