HUNDREDS of patients with suspected breast cancer were not seen on time at a Dorset Trust in December, figures show.

Charity Breast Cancer Now said the "frightening consequence" of such vital targets being missed across England was that more women could be living with the disease without knowing.

NHS England data shows 485 patients with suspected breast cancer were referred by GPs for urgent investigations at University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust in December.

Of these, just 284 (59 per cent) were seen by a consultant within the recommended two-week window – down from 79 per cent in December 2019.

It was also well below the national NHS target for 93 per cent of all cancer patients to be seen within this timeframe.

Across England, the proportion of patients seen within a fortnight fell from 90 per cent in December 2019 to just 71 per cent in December last year – the lowest figure for any month since records began in 2009.

Breast Cancer Now said the latest figures were "deeply worrying" and encouraged women to contact their GP if they find any new or unusual breast changes.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of the charity, said: "Facing longer waits at an already incredibly difficult time can cause women huge anxiety, and the frightening consequence of these vital targets being missed is that more women could be living with undetected breast cancer due to delayed diagnoses.

"This issue has to be addressed as early diagnosis is key to giving treatment the best chance of success."

Baroness Morgan added: “At the end of a gruelling year, and still now, we know the diagnostic and imaging cancer workforce is working tirelessly under immense pressure, having already been chronically under-resourced pre-pandemic.

"This is why we urgently need the Government to make the long-term investment and take the strategic approach needed to address the profound scale of the crisis currently facing the cancer workforce."

An NHS spokeswoman said hospitals carried out more than two cancer procedures for every coronavirus patient they treated in 2020.

She added: "These figures show people should come forward if they have a worrying symptom because the NHS has, even at the highest point of the second wave of the pandemic, maintained capacity to carry out cancer checks and support people to start treatment."

A Department for Health and Social Care spokesman said cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained a priority throughout the pandemic, with £150 million provided in October to allow the NHS to expand diagnostic capacity.

A spokesman for University Hospitals Dorset said: "UHD is a national pilot site for the 28 days faster diagnostic service (FDS). This was introduced to ensure the most clinically appropriate pathway was established for patients to ensure they had a diagnosis of cancer or the all clear within 28 days.

"In December our performance for this was 92.7 per cent compliant, compared to the threshold of 75 per cent for the standard.  

"Across Dorset we have seen an increase in the number of patients who are being referred to the breast service which has impacted on our performance as well as issues we have had with staff sickness. We understand what a difficult situation this can be for those concerned and we are doing all that we can with our partners across Dorset to ensure that patients are seen and diagnosed as quickly as possible."