By Sophie Borland
More than a third of cancer patients were initially sent away by GPs who mistook their symptoms for minor ailments, a report has found.
Tens of thousands had to return to their family doctors at least four times before finally being referred to hospital.
And around a fifth were forced to wait longer than a month between the referral and hospital scans.
The findings, from a report by the Royal College of General Practitioners, will prompt concern that patients’ chances of beating cancer are being jeopardised because the illness is not being picked up early enough.
Britain’s cancer survival rates lag well behind those of many other Western countries.
Yesterday it emerged that they are even lower than in Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
Experts say GPs are struggling to diagnose cancer, as its first symptoms can be confused with other relatively minor ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome, tiredness or a cough.
Even when a family doctor suspects their patient has cancer, they may have to wait several weeks for a free slot for a hospital scan.
In some cases, it means that once the illness is finally diagnosed it has spread to other organs and is far more difficult to treat.
The study looked at the records of 19,000 cancer patients diagnosed between 2009 and 2010.
It found that 38 per cent saw their GP at least twice before being referred to a hospital specialist.
This included 8 per cent – equivalent to 24,400 patients – who were forced to go back to their family doctor four or more times.
The cancers which appeared to be the most difficult to diagnose included those of the lung, ovary, pancreas and stomach.
The authors of the study pointed out that it is often very difficult for GPs to diagnose cancer as patients may have a variety of misleading symptoms.
One of the first signs of lung cancer is a cough for example, which may seem harmless, while ovarian cancer can lead to bloating which can be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome.
Mike Hobday, of Macmillan Cancer Support said: ‘Overall it is encouraging that the majority of patients visiting their GP are being referred to a specialist after only one or two consultations.
‘However, there are still far too many people who are visiting their GP five times or more before being sent for diagnostic tests. This is not good enough.
‘Early diagnosis can make a real difference cancer survival.
‘It is therefore no surprise that most of the cancers where over 20 per cent of patients had three or more consultations were highlighted in our recent report as having the lowest median survival times.’