A Norfolk hospital is the worst in England for seeing suspected breast cancer patients, with only one woman out of more than 200 with symptoms getting to see a consultant within two weeks of being referred by her GP.

Across England, 75 percent of patients with breast cancer symptoms had a consultation within 14 days of a GP referral in July, but at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) that figure was a staggering 0.5 percent.

The hospital also ranked the worst in the country on another metric for seeing patients with suspected breast cancer and for providing test results within four weeks, according to the latest published data.

Hospital sources said August’s figures were just as bad, but September and October had seen significant improvements following fierce efforts to deal with the backlog.

The figures are revealed as part of our week-long series, NHS On The Brink, revealing how the pandemic has pushed NHS provision in the region to breaking point, with record waiting lists, poorer cancer outcomes, and soaring mental ill health among exhausted healthcare professionals.

We will also explore what is being done to deal with these crises.

Breast cancer referral waiting times are measured in three ways: patients with symptoms (where cancer was not initially suspected) seen within two weeks, patients with suspected cancer seen within two weeks; and patients receiving test results within 28 days.

The nationwide NHS target is 93 percent for consultations and 75 percent for test results.

In July the NNUH ranked worst out of England’s 223 hospital trusts for all three metrics.

  • 204 patients with breast cancer symptoms were referred by GPs but only one was seen within two weeks (0.5 percent)
  • 339 patients with suspected breast cancer were referred but only four seen within a fortnight (1.2%)
  • 321 patients had tests but only 12 received their results within 28 days (4%)

Meanwhile the James Paget University Hospital (JPUH) in Gorleston and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) in King’s Lynn are not struggling.

At the JPUH, 93 percent of patients with symptoms were seen within a fortnight, as were 97 per cent of patients with suspected breast cancer. Some 94 percent got their test results inside 28 days.

At the QEH, 95 percent of patients with symptoms were seen within a fortnight, as were 98 percent of patients with suspected breast cancer. Some 97 percent got their results within 28 days.

A spokesman for the NNUH apologised to patients who had had to wait longer than expected, and put the dramatic slump in performance down to a “huge surge in referrals over a short time period” while the hospital still had to abide by Covid social distancing restrictions.

Prior to Covid the hospital saw an average of 142 breast cancer referrals a week, but between February and September of this year that number had increased by 23 per cent to an average of 175.

He added that August’s figures would be similar to July’s once published but that from July the NNUH started additional weekend clinics in order to catch up.

He said internal figures showed September’s performance had bounced back to 68 per cent and that so far during October the hospital had seen 98 per cent of suspected breast cancer patients within 14 days of a referral.

He added: “Despite the pressures on the local NHS caused by the pandemic, cancer services teams across Norfolk and Waveney have continued to innovate this year to increase capacity and bring cancer care closer to people’s homes with the running of two new Mobile Cancer Care Units and the opening of the new North Norfolk Macmillan Centre at Cromer and District Hospital.

"We are also increasing diagnostics and imaging capacity to help speed up the diagnosis of cancer and other conditions.”

'You just want it out, I can’t imagine the terror of having to wait'

Charity worker Ruth Bennett was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2019 and received treatment promptly at the West Suffolk hospital.

She said: “Once you’re diagnosed, it’s like you’ve got this horrible, disgusting, dangerous thing inside of you killing you.

“It’s a sick feeling, a squeamish feeling, and you just want it out - now.

“I can’t imagine the terror I would have felt if I’d had to wait and wait. I think I would have really struggled, I struggled as it was.”

The 56-year-old, from Barnham near Thetford, saw a consultant within two weeks of going to her GP in December, got her test results within a week of having her biopsy, and had a lumpectomy in January 2020.

“When you’re in the treatment process you feel quite empowered, knowing the wheels are turning, and if that wasn’t happening, I can’t imagine how you’d feel - being outside of that protective bubble," she said.

"It’s totally disempowering if you’re denied treatment. A lot of cancer is about how you choose to deal with it and having a positive mental attitude but you need to know you’re being looked after - if you’re not you’re really scared.”

Her feelings echo those shared by Amy Parkins, who spoke to the EDP last year about the prospect of waiting for her diagnosis.

The 33-year-old executive assistant from Blofield was diagnosed in August 2020 and waited six weeks to begin her treatment - within the NHS target for the commencement of cancer treatment, which is 62 days.

“The waiting is a whole new level of anxiety,” said Ms Parkins.

“There’s this thing inside you and you’re terrified it’s going to get worse.”

As many as 12,000 could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer

Charity Breast Cancer Now has said that around 12,000 women could be living with undiagnosed breast cancer due to missing out on NHS screenings during the pandemic.

The charity estimates there has been a 50 per cent rise in the number of women in the UK who have not had breast screening since services restarted last summer.

Overall 1.5 million fewer women are estimated to have had breast screenings between March 2020 and May 2021, compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Fewer women were referred to specialists during the pandemic due to disruption to NHS services and reticence by some patients to visit their GP. Additionally, screenings were put on hold at the height of the pandemic.

Additional reporting by Pete Raven.

Tomorrow: What is being done about record NHS waiting lists?