Most people diagnosed with cancer every year will have visited their GP at some point to report their symptoms. So the GP’s role in reaching a speedy and accurate diagnosis is key. In many cases a GP visit will lead to further tests and a diagnosis, but in other cases the cancer may not be spotted straight away.

The fact is spotting cancer can often be difficult.

Signs of cancer may not be clear or obvious and GPs see, on average, only around eight new cases a year. A full time GP will have between 6,000-8,000 appointments every year. And they will only have around 10 minutes per appointment to pick out warning signs that could be cancer but equally may be a symptom of a less serious condition.

These 10 minutes are crucial –which is why we’re working closely with GPs to support them with the training and resources they need to spot patients with potential cancer symptoms.

Today we’re pleased to announce a new partnership with the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust aimed at improving the early diagnosis of cancer by providing more support for GPs.

In this post, we explore why early diagnosis is so important, what we hope to achieve through our new partnership, and talk about our other work with GPs.

Early diagnosis saves lives

Early diagnosis improves the chances of beating cancer; if cancer is caught at an early stage before the disease has spread treatment is more likely to be successful.

Thousands of lives every year in the UK could be saved through earlier diagnosis.

For example, more than 40,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer each year – around 70 per cent caught at the earliest stage survive for at least one year, compared to fewer than 15 per cent of those diagnosed at the latest stage.

Lung cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all cancers, largely because more than two thirds of patients aren’t diagnosed until the cancer is at a later stage.

Knowing your body

So why aren’t more cancers spotted early?

The answer isn’t simple. First, people need to know when they should visit the GP in the first place. This means being aware of their bodies and noticing any unusual or persistent changes.

And when a person spots an unusual symptom, there are lots of reasons why they may put off visiting the doctor – not realising their symptoms are serious, worrying about wasting their doctor’s time, fear of what they will find.

One of our recent campaigns was designed to help overcome some of these barriers.

The challenges GPs face

But once that vital step is taken and an appointment to see the GP has been made, the signs that they might have cancer aren’t always clear or obvious.

There are more than 200 different types of cancer, and the symptoms are often vague. Different people can experience very different symptoms – even for the same cancer. And some forms of the disease are often hard to tell apart from a range of more common problems.

GPs also need to find a balance between referring people they are concerned about and causing unnecessary worry and discomfort by sending every patient they see for further testing – this would also slow down diagnoses by overwhelming the labs with test results.

This makes the GP’s role very challenging.

That’s why it’s essential that we support GPs, providing them with useful information so they can keep up to date with all the developments in cancer diagnosis and treatment. And that’s what our new partnership with the Royal Marsden is about.

The Royal Marsden partnership

GPs will be able to access online training and attend regular events with talks from leaders in the field and the opportunity to share expertise.

The first session will concentrate on the key signs of women’s cancers, including breast cancer, and those that are more difficult to diagnose early like ovarian and womb cancers.

By working closely with GPs, we have an opportunity to get their feedback too and identify not only where an early diagnosis can be missed, but also what else we can do to help them in the surgery and to make it easier for them to deal effectively with these early warning signs.

Online resources

The online training from this partnership builds on a range of information about cancer we’ve already developed for Doctors.net.uk, a membership site visited by more than 10,000 doctors daily.

This includes guidelines on when to refer people for further tests and advice about health messages to pass on to patients.

We also worked with the British Association of Dermatologists to design a toolkit on Doctors.net.uk to help GPs diagnose skin cancer.

Our toolkit gives doctors a visual guide to a range of different moles to help them recognise when people need to be sent for more tests. It’s been used by nearly 10,000 GPs across the UK – that’s nearly a quarter of all GPs.

And our analysis suggests that it increases GP confidence in deciding when patients should be referred for further skin cancer tests.

Local support

And we don’t just stick to cyberspace. We also provide face-to-face support to 1,500 GP practices around the UK, in partnership with the NHS.

Our specialist team holds educational events for staff, raising awareness of the importance of early diagnosis. They provide up to date local information, look at how referrals for more tests could be made faster and encourage practices to develop their own action plans, which are known to help improve early diagnosis.

We’ve also developed practical kits with posters and leaflets to help GPs and nurses raise cancer awareness with their patients too.

Early feedback from the surgeries that we’ve worked with shows that providing this intensive level of support has helped them manage patients with signs and symptoms of cancer better. Two thirds of practices are now developing cancer action plans to improve diagnosing cancer early.

And a report about to be published by the University of Durham suggests that this type of support is extremely valuable and is having a real impact in getting patients with potential cancer symptoms referred into hospital more quickly.

Saving more lives

By tackling early diagnosis on two fronts – helping both members of the public and GPs – we want to bring forward the day when most cancers are spotted early and when treatment is more likely to cure people.

Our partnership with the Royal Marsden marks another important step towards improving cancer diagnosis. It won’t be our last.