More than one in four cancer patients are only diagnosed with the disease when they come into hospital as emergency cases, according to a nationwide study.
When patients are diagnosed at this stage, they are much less likely to survive than those who are diagnosed after being referred to a specialist by their GP.
The findings are based on the case notes of patients diagnosed with cancer in 2007. They were diagnosed via a number of different routes, including screening (via the national breast and cervical cancer screening programmes), the two-week wait (a fast-track route whereby GPs can refer patients they suspect have cancer to a specialist) and after arriving in hospital as an emergency case.
Across all cancers, 25% of patients were diagnosed via the two-week wait but 23% were only diagnosed after arriving in hospital as an emergency case.
These findings vary across different types of cancer. For example, 21% of breast cancer patients were diagnosed via the national breast screening programme and 42% were referred urgently a specialist by their GP. However, 25% of colorectal cancer patients were diagnosed after emergency presentation, rising to 38% of lung cancer patients and 58% of patients with brain tumours.
This is likely to reflect how common different forms of cancer are (GPs will see more patients with breast cancer than patients with brain tumours) and the different symptoms produced by different types of cancer, making them easier or more difficult to identify at an early stage.
Late diagnosis has long been identified as a likely cause of the UK's poorer record on cancer survival compared to other European countries. It has been estimated that more than 10,000 lives could be saved each year if the country matched the best cancer survival rates in Europe
The National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative (NAEDI) was established by the last government in 2007 to tackle the problem of late diagnosis. It is led by Professor Sir Mike Richards, national cancer director, and Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK.