More than 80% of patients suspected of having cancer are being referred by their GP in the first two consultations.

This is according to new research published in the British Journal of Cancer today, which also found that more than half of patients are being sent to see a specialist at their first appointment.

A group of researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Durham and Bangor looked at data from over 13,000 patients in order to measure the promptness of cancer diagnosis in primary care. They found that 82% of people were referred after two visits, with over half of patients (58%) referred to a specialist after the first visit.

The study has also revealed that some cancers are proving harder to spot in the first few consultations, such as lung cancer and myeloma. This may be because they often produce symptoms that are common and not unique to cancer, so can be mistaken for less serious conditions, according to the authors.

The findings show that, the more consultations a patient needs, the greater number of weeks between first presentation and referral. With most of the patients who have these harder-to-spot cancers, it takes longer before there is a suspicion of cancer and they are seen by hospital specialists.

Dr Georgios Lyratzopoulos, study author and National Institute for Health Research post-doctoral research fellow working at the Cambridge Centre for Health Services Research, said: “These results show the progress we’re making in spotting cancer at the earliest opportunity. We now understand the typical symptoms of some cancers, like breast and melanoma, very well and that helps doctors to spot them quickly.

“Other cancers have less typical symptoms, making them more difficult to recognise straight away. Not suspecting cancer early enough can be stressful for patients and their relatives so understanding the symptoms of these cancers better is where we need to be making greater research efforts to help spot the disease earlier.”

Sara Hiom, early diagnosis director at Cancer Research UK, said: “These findings are encouraging but there is still room for improvement. Progress is clearly being made but one in five people have to make more than two visits to their GP, although it’s not surprising that this is usually for those cancers that are harder to spot. And we know for some people, difficulty making an appointment can be a barrier to going to the GP in the first place.

“Cancer can be treated more effectively when diagnosed early, so we need to make every effort to support GPs in getting the disease consistently diagnosed more quickly and accurately. But it’s also important that we all act on any persistent health changes that concern us and have the confidence to go back to our GPs if problems don’t clear up after an initial visit.”

But a recent study by the WHO found that in the UK, around 157,000 people die of cancer every year. Although the mortality rate is predicted to continue declining, due to a growing and ageing population the number of deaths is expected to rise to around 182,000 deaths by 2025.

Experts believe that raising awareness of the potential for reducing the risk of cancer is crucial to help curb this expected increase.