Your GP acts as the gatekeeper, opening doors so that you can see the right consultant and indicating to that consultant the urgency of your case.
To help you effectively, your GP needs to be familiar with your local cancer services and prepared to argue your case with the funding authorities if necessary.
Cancer treatment has been something of a lottery - whether you got the most appropriate and best-quality treatment depended to a large extent on where you lived.
The Department of Health has now recognised that cancer patients have a right to the care of specialists (specialist teams, not surprisingly, produce better results) and a new structure for cancer care is being set up.
The aim is to have a three tier network consisting of primary care and community-based services, cancer units based in local district hospitals, and cancer centres based in larger hospitals or trusts.
The units will have special multi-disciplinary teams to manage the commonest cancers, including breast cancer. Disease-specific expertise in these cancer units is intended to be equal to that in the cancer centres which will provide the more high-tech facilities some patients will need.
So far, so good - but what if you have just discovered you may have breast cancer? Can you be sure you are being sent to the right place?
Becky Miles, chair of the National Cancer Alliance which campaigns for standardised high-quality cancer care, says that people, not places, are the key. "It's the quality of the team that's important - so if you have a lump in your breast and your GP is going to refer you, you should ask to be seen by a breast disease specialist team with a named primary breast surgeon. If you have a lump that has been detected by mammogram the chances are you will be seen by such a team, but check."
The team, she adds, should include a site-specialist surgeon, an oncologist, a pathologist who specialises in breasts, a radiologist and a breast nurse.
*The NCA publishes a directory which lists all oncologists and specialists in palliative care. For more information write to the National Cancer Alliance, PO Box 579, Oxford OX4 1LB.Reuse content