Accessing cancer services

For most people, the NHS will diagnose your cancer, treat and care for you. You may see a range of professionals, often in different places. 

This page gives general information about the cancer services available within the NHS and what you can expect for your care and support.

Primary care

Primary care is the part of the NHS which provides healthcare in the community. 

Your GP is part of primary care, they are often the first person you go to with a health problem, and this includes cancer. 

Other healthcare professionals in primary care include district nurses, health visitors, opticians, dentists, pharmacists and a range of specialist therapists.


You may be referred to a specialist cancer centre at a hospital for your treatment. It might not be your local hospital.

Most hospital websites will have information about the services they offer and the consultants you will see. To find out where your local hospital is, you can search on NHS websites:

Palliative care

Palliative care specialists manage the symptoms and side effects of cancer, like pain. Their aim is to improve quality of life.

They may be involved at any point in your care alongside other teams either in hospitals, hospices or your home.

Some palliative care services are provided by the NHS, some by charities, or a combination of both.

The Cancer Drugs Fund

The Cancer Drugs Fund was set up by the government to improve access to cancer drugs unavailable on the NHS.

The fund produce a list of cancer drugs that is regularly reviewed.

If your doctor thinks there is a drug on the list that you may benefit from they can make an application on your behalf. 

The Cancer Drugs Fund is a partnership between NHS England, NICE, Public Health England and the Department of Health and is only available in England.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems for deciding health budgets and so far have no plans to start a cancer drugs fund.

Waiting times for services

Waiting times for cancer services are standard across the NHS:

  • A maximum wait of two weeks to see a specialist in England. In the rest of the UK you will be seen as soon as possible
  • Treatment should start no longer than 31 days after the decision to treat your cancer has been made
  • A maximum of 62 days wait from your GP referral or screening results to the start of your treatment

Interpreting services

If English is not your first language or you need help communicating, you can ask for an interpreter to translate for you.

Even if someone in your family does speak English or knows sign language, you may prefer a trained interpreter to go to your appointments and translate for you.

You should contact your hospital beforehand so they can arrange an interpreter for you.

There is also lots of cancer information available in other languages or formats.

Practical help from the NHS

As well as treating your cancer there are some practical ways the NHS can help:

  • Prescriptions – for people with cancer, prescriptions are usually free
  • Help with transport – getting to your appointments and costs
  • Providing wigs if you lose your hair because of treatment

Patient advice services

Across the UK there are independant organisations that offer confidential and impartial advice if you're unhappy with your care or treatment. 

Each organisation has local offices. You can find out how to get in touch on their websites:

Having a say in cancer services

You can play a part in shaping cancer services by sharing your experience. You might have been diagnosed with cancer or be a carer or relative.

Discussion groups and campaigns are run by charities or your local NHS trust. Examples of the types of groups you can join are:

  • Groups for specific cancers
  • Groups to discuss parts of the cancer service
  • Cancer research groups

Your experience of using cancer services and honest constructive comments is all these groups need.

All groups are free to join, training is offered when needed and most refund travel costs.

To find out more about groups running in your area contact your local hospital. You can also contact charities to find out more about campaigns that you can get involved with.

Last review: Oct 2021 | Next review: Oct 2022

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