Getting a cancer diagnosis

Different types of cancer have different symptoms. These symptoms can be caused by things other than cancer. Most people with these symptoms will not have cancer. But if you do, it is important to get a diagnosis and treatment as early as possible.

Getting an accurate diagnosis of cancer can take weeks or sometimes months. It is important to get the right diagnosis, so you can get the best treatment.

The NHS in all 4 nations of the UK is committed to making sure that people with cancer or suspected cancer are assessed, diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible.

Urgent referral for suspected cancer

If you have symptoms that suggest you might have cancer, your GP, nurse or dentist may decide you need to see a specialist quickly. They will make an urgent referral for suspected cancer:

  • If you live in England, an urgent referral means that you should see a specialist within 2 weeks.
  • Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not have the 2-week time frame to see a specialist. In Northern Ireland, the 2-week wait only applies for suspected breast cancer.

Wherever you live, you will be seen by a specialist as soon as possible.

Due to the impact of the coronavirus (covid) pandemic on health services, you may have to wait longer for your first appointment. Cancer services are doing their best to avoid delays as far as possible.

Ask your GP or nurse when you are likely to get an appointment.

An urgent referral can be worrying. But remember that 9 out of 10 people (90%) referred this way will not have a diagnosis of cancer.

Waiting for tests

Your specialist may arrange tests to find out what is causing your symptoms. There are many different types of tests and scans. The tests and scans you have will depend on your symptoms and your situation.

Some types of specialised scans are only available in larger hospitals. This means that you might need to go to another hospital for your scan, or have different types of tests. This can mean you have to wait longer, or have more tests, before you get a diagnosis.

Waiting for results

A specialist doctor will need to look at your test results and write a report. They will send the report to your cancer doctor, who will give you the results. It can take about 2 or 3 weeks before you get your results, depending on which tests you had done.

You can ask your specialist doctor how long they think it will take before you get your results. If you have not had any results after this time, you could:

  • contact the doctor who arranged the tests, if you have their details
  • contact the hospital switchboard
  • ask your GP.

Waiting for a diagnosis

If you live in England

In England, the NHS aims to take no longer than 28 days from referral to finding out whether you have cancer. This is called the faster diagnosis standard (FDS).

This target applies to you if you had an urgent referral to see a specialist through 1 of the following:

  • a 2-week urgent referral
  • the urgent screening programme pathway (for breast, bowel or cervical cancer).

The urgent screening programme pathway is when your doctor refers you for further urgent assessment. This is usually following an abnormal result from a screening test.

If you live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland

The NHS in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland does not have a faster diagnosis standard target. But healthcare professionals will follow guidelines for making an urgent suspected cancer referral. They will do everything they can to find a diagnosis as quickly as possible.

Waiting to start treatment

If you have a cancer diagnosis

If you are referred to a specialist, you should not have to wait longer than 62 days from the referral before starting treatment. This is called the 62-day standard.

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 your first treatment. This is called the 31-day standard.

It is important for your healthcare team to make a fully informed decision. Cancer waiting times aim to make sure that treatment happens as soon as possible. If your doctors need to do more tests, it might take longer to start treatment. This is to make sure you get the best treatment for your cancer.

If your GP did not originally suspect cancer, your referral may be non-urgent. In this case, your wait time to start treatment should be no more than 18 weeks from:

  • the day your appointment was booked
  • the day the hospital or service received your referral letter.

But if your GP has any suspicions about a cancer symptom, they would usually make an urgent referral.

This guidance applies to the NHS across all 4 UK nations.

If your cancer has come back (recurrence)

If you live in England

NHS England has a waiting time target for cancer that has come back (a recurrence). It says that you should start treatment within 31 days. This time starts from the meeting in which you and your doctor agree your treatment plan.

If you live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not set a waiting time target for cancer that has come back. But you will start treatment as soon as possible.

For more information on cancer waiting times:

Emotional support if you are worried about cancer waiting times

There have been news reports about cancer waiting times being at a record high. This may affect some people who have been referred by their GP and are waiting to see a cancer specialist. It might also affect people who are waiting to start their cancer treatment.

We understand that this is worrying for a lot of people. You may be already experiencing a delay, or you might be worried about how it could affect you. We are here to support you.

Talk to one of our cancer nurses

If you are concerned about waiting times, referrals, changes or disruption to your treatment, or you have questions about cancer, you can contact our specially trained nurses. Call the Macmillan Support Line for free on 0808 808 00 00 (7 days a week, 8am to 8pm).

You can also get support by:

Macmillan Buddies

Macmillan Buddies are trained volunteers who often have a cancer experience or know someone who has. They can support you with a weekly phone call.

Sign up to receive a weekly call from a Macmillan Buddy.

Online Community

The Macmillan Online Community is our cancer forum. It's free and open to everyone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can share what you're feeling with others with cancer and get support.

You can also ask one of our cancer experts a question and get a reply within 2 working days.

Tailored email support

If you've recently been diagnosed with cancer, sign up to receive regular tailored emails with information and support.

Other emotional help

We have information about other ways people with cancer can get emotional help.

This includes:

Looking after your physical health and wellbeing

If you are waiting for treatment, it is important to be as fit as possible.

If you are waiting for a referral, a healthy, balanced diet and staying active can also give you back a sense of control.

Macmillan has information and services to help you take care of your physical health and wellbeing.

Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacists

Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacists provide local, in-store support to people living with or affected by cancer. They can help to answer your questions about medication, listen to any concerns, and guide you to other sources of information and support.

Support if you are concerned about the quality of your care

Everyone should get the very best cancer care and treatment, no matter what their situation.

Most people are happy with the treatment and care they get from healthcare professionals. But sometimes mistakes happen, or things go wrong. If you are unhappy about the treatment you have received, you have the right to complain.

Giving feedback or making a complaint is important. It lets health services and professionals understand what is working well and what the problems are. This helps them learn what needs to change to give patients better care.

For people who use health services, making a complaint can also be a positive way of dealing with an upsetting situation. Getting an apology or an explanation about what went wrong sometimes helps people understand and cope with what happened. It may also be reassuring to know what is being done to make sure the situation will not happen again.

We have information on how to make a complaint and who can help you.

Sometimes it can feel awkward or embarrassing to talk to your healthcare team about any concerns, especially if you are unhappy with your care. It may feel like a lot to cope with, when you are already coping with cancer.

You might find our tips on having difficult conversations with healthcare professionals helpful.

About our information

  • This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been approved by members of Macmillan’s Centre of Clinical Expertise.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 July 2023
Next review: 01 July 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.