Man waiting in hospital corridor

Cancer Focus NI warns of health risks as waiting times for cancer treatment continue to increase

Cancer Focus Northern Ireland has warned of growing health risks in Northern Ireland as waiting times for cancer referrals and treatments remain stagnant far below target, with some continuing to increase.

The warning from Northern Ireland’s local cancer charity follows the publication of the latest NI Cancer Waiting Times Statistics for April to June 2023 from the Department of Health (DoH). The data shows that the Department’s wait time targets were missed across the board. Per this morning’s data release, of the 2,769 cancer patients who started their first definitive treatment, 87.9% started the treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat (target: 98%); that of the 1,371 cancer patients starting treatment following urgent GP referral for suspect cancer, 36.9% started treatment within 62 days of the referral (target: 95%); and that of the 3,457 patients seen by a breast cancer specialist following urgent referral for breast cancer, 70.2% were seen within 14 days of the referral (target: 100%). The data pertains to patients treated by an HSC Trust from April to June 2023.

A review of waiting time statistics from across the last decade further underlines the need for urgent action, according to the charity.

Speaking after the publication of the most recent DoH NI Cancer Waiting Times statistics today, Richard Spratt, CEO of Cancer Focus NI, said: “Treatment delays add unnecessarily to the stress and health risks faced by cancer patients in Northern Ireland. It is time to get Stormont back so we can start to address the serious decline in prompt access to diagnoses and treatments.

Richard Spratt, CEO Cancer Focus NI

Richard Spratt, Chief Executive Officer at Cancer Focus Northern Ireland

“Cancer patients here have world-leading cancer research, cancer clinicians, and treatment plans on their doorstep, but they are not getting access to these solutions in a timely manner. That means lives are being placed at risk: each delay in treatment is a chance for the cancer to grow and spread, making it harder to beat.

“A look back at waiting times statistics over the last decade indicates a very worrying picture for the future if we do not get local decision-making back on track. In 2012, 99.9% of urgent breast cancer referrals were seen within the target of 14 days. Last year, that dropped to only 60.75% of patients being seen within the desired timeframe.

“A further target states 98% of patients diagnosed with cancer should receive their first definitive treatment within 31 days of a decision to treat. In 2012, that target fell short by 0.8%. In 2022, it had fallen short by 10.5%.

“In addition, 95% of patients urgently referred by a GP with a suspected cancer should receive their first definitive treatment within 62 days. A look back at the data in relation to that target shows us that in 2012, 80.8% of people had received their treatment within that period. In 2022, that figure stood at 38.6%.

“But the fact is this is not just about statistics. These are real people, and the reality is that at least 26 people are being told they have cancer every day in Northern Ireland, with that figure expected to double by 2040. It has now been 18 months since the new Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland was launched. The time is now for our political representatives to get back into government and take the type of urgent and decisive action needed to improve outcomes and deliver for cancer patients.

“None of us know when we, or someone we love, will receive a cancer diagnosis, but as a society, we should all be able to trust that we would have timely access to treatment.”


Publication of NI Cancer Waiting Times Statistics: April – June 2023 can be viewed here.

References can be viewed here.