Health: Cancer diagnosis can take up to three years

Patients with life-threatening cancers of the stomach and throat face waiting between 17 weeks and, in rare cases, three years before their condition is diagnosed and treatment begins, according to a report. In some cases, tumours, particularly of the stomach, could double in size at least once during this waiting period, and may severely affect the patient's chances of survival

Iain Martin, a consultant surgeon at Leeds General Infirmary, and colleagues, examined the time taken to diagnose stomach or throat cancer in 115 patients. Their report, in tomorrow's issue of the British Medical Journal, says that the average delay from first symptoms to diagnosis was 17 weeks. The shortest wait was one week and the longest three-and-a-half years.

A quarter of patients faced delays of more than seven months before diagnosis. Delays occurred at all stages of consultation, but the longest involved the hospital. Patients were usually quick to seek medical advice for their symptoms but "much of the delay in diagnosis could be avoided if GPs referred patients promptly for investigation, and a sense of urgency was imparted to the hospital's diagnosis process," the doctors said.