Going to your GP

If you go to your GP with symptoms, they will examine you and may arrange some tests. This will depend on the symptoms you have.

Referral guidelines help GPs decide what tests you should have and how quickly you should see a specialist doctor. The guidelines include risk factors and the signs and symptoms that a cancer may cause.

If your GP thinks your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they will refer you to a specialist doctor. This will be a doctor who specialises in diagnosing and treating the type of cancer your GP thinks could be causing the symptoms you have.

Types of tests and scans

The specialist at the hospital will use different tests and scans to see if you have cancer. They may also use them to find out more about the cancer and see how you're doing during and after treatment.

Search our A to Z of tests and scans.

Questions to ask your GP

Here are some possible questions you could ask about being referred for tests:

  • Why are you referring me to a specialist?
  • Is the doctor I will be seeing a cancer specialist?
  • When will I be seen? Are you referring me as urgent or non-urgent?
  • When will I have the tests?
  • What are the tests for and what will they involve?
  • Will the person doing the test look after me while it is being done and tell me what to expect?
  • Who will give me the results and when?

What to expect at your tests

The healthcare staff will explain what will happen at each test. They may also give you written information about the tests. Some tests can be uncomfortable, but the staff will make you feel as comfortable as possible. Let then know if you have any discomfort during the test.

Further tests after diagnosis

If tests show you have cancer, you your doctor may want to do some further tests. These tests will help them find out the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.

Using the information from all your tests and scans, a team of health care professionals will work together to plan the treatment they feel is best for your situation. This team is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Waiting times to see a specialist

Getting an accurate diagnosis of cancer can take weeks or sometimes months. Usually, this will not impact on how successful the treatment will be.

The NHS in all four nations is committed to making sure that people with cancer or suspected cancer are seen as quickly as possible.

The time you can expect to wait varies depending on where you live.

If you have particular signs and symptoms that suggest you might have cancer, your GP may decide you need to see a specialist quickly. They will give you an urgent referral. If you live in England, this means you should see the specialist within 2 weeks.

Wherever you live in the UK, if you are referred to a specialist, you should not have to wait longer than 62 days from the referral before starting treatment.

If you are diagnosed with cancer, you should not have to wait more than 31 days from the diagnosis and a decision to start treatment before you have treatment.

For more information on cancer waiting times:

Getting the results of your tests

You will usually be given an appointment to come back and see your specialist, so that they can explain the results of your tests. They should use clear language and give you enough time to ask questions.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. You can also ask for a key worker or clinical nurse specialist to be there to help, although there is not always a specialist nurse for every situation. You can also bring someone with you when your diagnosis and treatment options are being discussed.