After 20 years of trying, England has failed to close the gap on the best-performing nations in cancer care.

The Health Foundation’s review of the government’s record between 1995 and 2015 revealed that the NHS is still behind despite four strategies setting goals to improve.

Professor Sir Mike Richards led the review and warned that patients are facing difficulty when trying to access tests and scans. He said,

Although progress has been made, the aims of the strategies have not been achieved.

The review found that with improvement, the services could save 10,000 lives each year, representing one in 13 deaths.

It highlighted the importance of early diagnosis, just a month after the Prime Minister promised to make early diagnosis of cancer a key priority for NHS spending.

Sir Mike said, that the number of missed opportunities to save lives was the equivalent of

a jumbo jet of people falling from the sky every two weeks.

Survival rates have improved since 2000, when 62% of patients survived for at least a year. This increased to 72% by 2015. Five-year survival has increased from 42% to 53%.

Despite the UK’s cancer survival rates improving, results show we are lagging behind in comparison to five other nations (Canada, Australia, Sweden, Denmark and Norway). Since 2000 the UK has remained in the bottom two for five-year survival rates.

Sir Mike discussed the problem, highlighting the ‘tight gate-keeping’ in the NHS with GPs facing pressure not to refer too many patients. The NHS lacks the equipment and staff to carry out the tests and scans when patients are referred.

The report stated that tackling these issues would require major investment.

GPs refer two million patients a year for urgent tests and scans, an increase of four times the numbers that they did a decade ago.

The rise in referrals coincides with long waiting times as the NHS struggles to meet its targets. Despite these referrals, the report suggests that one in five cases is still diagnosed as an emergency, such as in A&E. In this case, patients are less likely to survive due to late diagnosis.

Sir Mike added that services were undermined by the 2012 Health and Care Act which led to the closure of regional cancer specialist groups and many experienced professionals leaving the NHS.

He welcomed the government’s plans to increase funding by £20 billion extra a year by 2023, with cancer being a key focus. The Prime Minister recently promised a new strategy to ensure that three-quarters of cancers will be diagnosed early.

NHS England is currently piloting their rapid diagnostic clinics – a one-stop testing centre where patients can access different specialists and procedures, often on the same day.

Sir Mike also highlights the need to raise awareness of cancer signs and symptoms as British people can be reluctant to come forward when they experience symptoms, sometimes down to embarrassment, sometimes to not wanting to bother the doctor.

The Department of Health and Social Care said improving early diagnosis was a "key priority", pointing out from next year a new 28-day target for diagnosis would be rolled out.

For more information on bowel cancer signs and symptoms visit our section on Bowel cancer symptoms.