Getting the best from your cancer services
This section aims to help you and your family get the best from your cancer services. It suggests questions you can ask any health or social care professional you’re seen by, including your GP, nurses and consultants (cancer specialists).
To treat cancer in the best possible way, cancer services in the UK are organised into regional cancer networks. Each network is responsible for the planning and delivery of care for people with cancer in that area. Within each network there are one or more cancer treatment centres, usually based in a larger hospital. Cancer centres specialise in treating a variety of cancers, including some of the rarer types, and in giving specific cancer treatments, such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The cancer centre may not be your local hospital, so you may have to travel to be seen by a cancer specialist or to have treatment.
Throughout the cancer networks there are also smaller cancer units that are often based in local hospitals. The cancer units will treat people with the more common types of cancer and provide treatments, such as surgery and some chemotherapy treatments. Depending on your cancer and treatment plan, the cancer units allow you to be treated closer to your home. The units have very close links with the larger cancer centres and you’ll still benefit from the care and support provided by the centre’s multidisciplinary team.
Cancer networks in England are due to be replaced with ‘strategic clinical networks’ by April 2013. These will aim to improve health services for people affected by cancer.
Getting the best from your cancer services
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We hope the questions below will give you a better understanding of what to expect at every stage of your treatment and care. Each question is followed by a description of what should happen, according to the recommendations laid out by official national guidelines.
The questions and service guidelines in this section were originally taken from NHS cancer care in England and Wales (March 2002), a report published by the Commission for Health Improvement/Audit Commission. The content below has since been revised using updated reports and guidelines.
Good care and information are discussed in a large study of cancer services carried out by the Department of Health: National cancer patient experience survey programme – 2010 national survey report. You can download this report from the Department of Health website.
In Scotland, these areas are discussed in a 2008 report by the Scottish Government called Better cancer care, an action plan.
In Northern Ireland, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have a report called Service framework for cancer prevention, treatment and care. This report looks at the standards of care and treatment that people with cancer should be able to expect from the healthcare professionals they see.
Why are you referring me to a specialist?
Your GP should explain that they are unsure what is causing your symptoms, and they are referring you to a specialist for further tests. To help the GP decide which symptoms could be caused by a cancer and need further investigation, they will have used national cancer referral guidelines. There are national guidelines for GPs in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. The three guidelines are essentially very similar, but there are some differences in what they say.
When will I be seen? Are you referring me as urgent or non-urgent?
Depending on your situation, you will be referred to the hospital in one of three ways: as immediate, urgent or non-urgent.
An immediate referral means you should be seen by a cancer specialist within a few hours. An urgent referral means you should have to wait a maximum of two weeks (although in Northern Ireland the two-week guideline currently only applies to breast cancer). A non-urgent referral is treated as a routine hospital referral and may take longer.
To find out more about referral times in England and Wales, you can visit the website of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and search for ‘cancer referral guidelines’. If you live in Scotland, you can visit the website of the Scottish Government and search for ‘cancer referral’. If you live in Northern Ireland you can visit the Northern Ireland Cancer Network website.
When will I be tested?
Your hospital should organise your tests as quickly as possible. The people looking after you should explain where the tests will be carried out and how you can prepare for them.
What are the tests for and what will they involve?
You should be told why you are having the tests, what they will involve, when you will receive the results, and who will give them to you. The type of test(s) or scan(s) you have will depend on the type of cancer that is suspected. You should be told how many tests you will need.
Who will give me the results and when?
The cancer specialist should tell you how long it will take before the results are known, and will usually give you the results during an appointment that will be made for you. They should also tell you about any information and support available to help you while you wait for the results.
Will the person doing the test look after me while it is being done? Will they tell me what to expect?
Although tests can be uncomfortable, you should be supported by staff and any discomfort should be kept to a minimum. You should be given full, understandable information about the tests. Let your cancer specialist or nurse know if you aren’t sure why a particular test is needed.
What times are available for me to have my tests?
You should be told that, as far as possible, your tests can be organised at a time that suits you. However, there will be lots of people having tests for different reasons, so it may not always be possible for the tests to happen at a convenient time.
Is the doctor I will be seeing a recognised cancer specialist?
You should be referred to the specialist who is most appropriate for you. This may be a surgeon, cancer specialist (oncologist) or other specialist, depending on your situation. You can ask the doctor about their area of experience.
Will the doctor have all my test results? Will the meeting be for diagnosis or treatment?
Your test results should be passed quickly to the specialist who will be seeing you. The first meeting after your results have come through is normally to give you the diagnosis and discuss what happens next.
Can I bring someone with me to discuss my diagnosis and treatment?
You should feel welcome to bring someone with you when your diagnosis and treatment options are being discussed.
Will my cancer specialist understand my concerns and give me time to ask questions? Will a specialist nurse be there to help me?
Your cancer specialist should be trained in communication skills. They should use clear language and give you enough time to ask questions. You can also ask for a specialist nurse to be there to talk to you and help you.
Who can I telephone if I think of questions later? Can I see someone in person?
Someone (usually a nurse) should be available after your initial appointment to discuss your diagnosis and how it may affect you. You will be told who to contact and will be able to contact this person by telephone or during another visit. If you think of questions later, you may also find it helpful to speak to someone at your nearest Macmillan cancer information and support centre or mobile Macmillan cancer information centre.
Can I ask for a second opinion?
Your GP or cancer specialist should be willing to refer you to another specialist for a second opinion if you feel it would be helpful. Getting a second opinion may delay the start of your treatment, so you and your doctor need to be confident that it would give you useful information.
Will someone tell my GP the diagnosis and what is planned? How quickly will this happen?
If you are diagnosed with cancer, your GP should be told about this by the end of the next working day (according to the Manual for cancer services 2004 guidance from the Department of Health).
What are my treatment options?
Your cancer specialist should tell you about all of the treatment options available to you. They will discuss the benefits and disadvantages of the treatments and how they might affect you. Your cancer specialist may also discuss participating in clinical research trials for new treatments. You may find our section on making treatment decisions useful.
When will the treatment start?
After diagnosis, your cancer specialist will usually want to carry out further tests and investigations to learn more about your cancer. They will be able to tell you how long these tests will take. If you’re diagnosed with cancer and doctors decide that you need treatment, then there should be a maximum wait of 31 days between this decision and the start of treatment. This is according to targets in place across the UK.
Who will oversee my treatment?
Your treatment will be discussed and planned by a group of specialists called a multidisciplinary team (MDT). This team will be made up of all the healthcare staff involved in your care. It will include cancer nurses, your cancer specialist and other relevant specialists, such as a dietitian or physiotherapist. You should be put in contact with a nominated ‘key worker’, who will keep you in touch with the MDT.
What will the treatment be like and how long will it take? Will there be side effects and what can I do about them?
Your cancer specialist or nurse should describe the treatment and how it is given. They will discuss the possible side effects of the treatment and what can be done to help relieve them. They will answer any questions you have and may also give you some written information about the treatment that you can take home.
If I need surgery, will it be performed by a specialist in my type of cancer?
Some types of cancer need more specialist surgery than others, which should be performed by a specialist surgeon. You can ask your cancer specialist whether this applies to you.
If I have chemotherapy, who will prescribe it? Who will give me the chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy – often called ’chemo’ for short – is the use of anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells, or prevent or slow their growth. It should be prescribed by a doctor who specialises in treating cancer (an oncologist). Chemotherapy is given by nurses who have had specific training in giving chemotherapy.
Can I have the chemotherapy in my local hospital?
Some types of chemotherapy can be given in cancer units within local hospitals, while other types need to be given at a specialist cancer hospital.
Will all the hospitals I attend know about my diagnosis and treatment?
If you attend more than one hospital, your complete hospital records should be available in each place.
Who should I contact if I’m worried about my diagnosis, treatment or prognosis?
Good supportive care should be available throughout your treatment. The healthcare team looking after you should tell you how to get more help and information.
Are there patient support groups in my area?
You should be given information about support groups in your area. You can find out about people affected by cancer who meet in your area to support each other by calling us. You can also share your experiences and discuss your feelings at our online community.
What help is available for my family?
Your healthcare team should direct you towards support groups for families affected by cancer.
Will I need special equipment or support when I go home? Will I get this?
Your healthcare team should make detailed plans to meet your needs at home after you have been discharged from hospital.
Does my GP know I’m being discharged?
Your GP should be told quickly when you have been discharged.
Who should I contact if I have questions or concerns once my treatment has finished? Will I have any follow-up care?
The people looking after you should tell you who is responsible for your follow-up care , and they should give you their contact details. Your follow-up care will usually depend on the type of cancer and treatment you’ve had. You’ll usually have a check-up about 6–8 weeks after the end of your treatment. Your doctor will examine you and ask questions about your health and how you’ve been feeling. You may also have blood tests.
What are the treatment guidelines and standards for my treatment and care? Can I see them?
You can ask the healthcare team to show you the guidelines and standards. These are based on national guidance provided by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in England and Wales, the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) in Scotland, and the Northern Ireland Cancer Network (NICaN) in Northern Ireland.
Palliative care is care that reduces symptoms (eg pain or tiredness) but is not designed to bring about a cure. Palliative care is not only aimed at helping with physical problems, but with psychological and spiritual ones too. You may find it helpful to read our section about coping with advanced cancer.
Who will take responsibility for identifying any new care needs I may have? Will someone also offer support to me and my family?
Your key worker will be your first point of contact. They can help you get help and support from other healthcare professionals involved in your care, such as your GP or district nurse. Your key worker should also take responsibility for making sure that all the palliative care needs that you and your family have are recognised and met.
Will I be able to talk to a palliative care professional, such as a consultant or specialist nurse?
You should be able to talk to a nurse and doctor who understand your condition. If you need more support than you’re getting from the healthcare professionals you’re already seeing, you can be put in touch with specialist staff for palliative care.
What if I need help overnight or at the weekend?
Arrangements should be in place for you to contact your district nurse, who can tell you about the care available during the night or at weekends. If you need more specialist input, they can refer you to a specialist palliative care professional. You should be told about these arrangements.
Who do I go to first if I need help or have questions?
Your care should be overseen by a designated key worker. The staff looking after you should tell you who this person is and how to contact them.
Who else can I talk to about how I am feeling? What support is available for my family?
You and your family should have good practical and emotional support whenever you or they need it. You can ask for support from your GP or from the hospital where you had your treatment. You can speak to one of our cancer support specialists about how you’re feeling.
If I die, will I be able to die where I want to?
Whenever possible you should be able to die where you and your relatives choose. If you want to die at home you should be offered support services to help make this possible.
If I die, who will offer my family support?
The people looking after you should make sure that bereavement care is offered to your family. There are many organisations that run groups for people who are grieving, such as Cruse Bereavement Care.
Call us for support and more information about all aspects of cancer.
When your healthcare is not as good as it should be
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Most of the time, treatment and care within the NHS goes well. However, it doesn’t always work out that way and sometimes things go wrong. If you’re unhappy with the care you have received, you may want to complain. Complaints can also be made by a carer who is acting on your behalf.
All hospitals and GP practices will have a member of staff who is responsible for dealing with complaints, called the complaints manager. Your local hospital or trust will have their own complaints procedure and can give you a copy.
A good place to get free advice about making a complaint is your local Citizens Advice. In England, you can also talk to a Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS). All hospitals in England have access to a PALS, and they are there to help with any queries or issues you have about your healthcare. You can contact your local PALS by telephoning the hospital where you were treated. The PALS can usually help solve problems, or they can put you in contact with the Independent Complaints and Advocacy Service (ICAS), who can offer you advice.
Help and advice about making a complaint is available in Northern Ireland from the Patient and Client Council.
In Scotland, you can get advice from your local NHS Board in Scotland.
In Wales, help and advice is available from your Community Health Council.
We have more online information about making a complaint.
Support for each other
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No one knows more about the impact cancer has on a person’s life than those who have been affected by the disease themselves. That’s why we help to bring people with cancer and carers together online and in their communities.
We can help you to find out about people affected by cancer who meet in your area to support each other. You can also share your experiences, ask questions and get support from others by heading to our online community.
This section is based on our Getting the best from your cancer services leaflet and has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including:
Manual for cancer services 2004. 2004. Department of Health.
National cancer patient experience survey programme – 2010: national survey report. 2010. Department of Health.
NHS cancer care in England and Wales. 2002. Commission for Health Improvement/Audit Commission.
Northern Ireland Cancer Network (NICaN). Northern Ireland referral guidelines for suspected cancer. 2007. www.cancerni.net/networkservices/networkproductsandresources/referralguidanceforsuspectedcancer (accessed June 2011).
Priorities for Action. 2010. Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Referral guidelines for suspected cancer. 2005. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).