The average time between patients presenting with symptoms to their GP and receiving a cancer diagnosis fell from 125 days to 120 days between 2001/2 and 2007/8, researchers found.
Even greater reductions were seen in certain cancers. Kidney cancer is now diagnosed 20 days sooner than before, and head and neck cancer 21 days sooner.
Researchers said the improvement may be the result of a NICE cancer guideline published in 2005. This advised GPs about symptoms which might indicate cancer and when patients should urgently be referred for further testing.
For the British Journal of Cancer study, a team from the universities of Bangor, Exeter and Durham analysed the medical records of 20,000 people over 40 who had been diagnosed with cancer over the two time periods.
They focused on 15 common cancers in people who had reported their symptoms to their GP.
Patients with symptoms highlighted by the 2005 guidelines took less time to be diagnosed. Breast and testicular cancers took the shortest time to be diagnosed after symptoms were first reported, with patients waiting two months on average.
However, patients with lung or gastric cancer faced waits of over 10 months after first seeing their GP.
Professor Greg Rubin, study author from Durham University and clinical lead for cancer for the RCGP and Cancer Research UK partnership, said: ‘Diagnosing cancers early can make a real difference to survival. We know that patients’ chances of beating the disease are better when the disease is caught early as treatments are more effective before the cancer begins to grow or spread.’
Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘This study shows it’s possible to make a difference to the speed of diagnosis for some cancers through influencing policy and changing the way that potential cancer symptoms are dealt with.’