Cancer patients around the country are waiting months to receive their first bout of potentially life-saving treatment as hospitals struggle to keep up with demand.

One worried man, whose mum has just been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, says the diagnosis and wait for treatment will put a damper on what will likely be the family's last Christmas with her.

An oncologist told the Herald more people being diagnosed with cancer and greater treatment options were putting a strain on the health system.

The most recent figures published by the Ministry of Health showed the number of people diagnosed with cancer each year increased by 4247 between 2005 and 2014 to a total of 23,023.

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Latest ministry health target results showed only 81.4 per cent of cancer patients between April and June received their first treatment within 62 days of being referred to a specialist with a high suspicion of cancer.

Waitemata, Waikato, Canterbury and Nelson Marlborough district health boards hit or exceeded the ministry's 85 per cent target while the other 16 fell below it.

The worst performing health board was West Coast where 44 per cent of patients waited longer than 62 days to be seen, while in Whanganui 36 per cent of patients waited longer than two months.

A man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his 73-year-old mother was diagnosed with cancer after an X-ray taken a few weeks ago found a lesion on her lungs .

A biopsy confirmed it was cancer and the family were told there was nothing they could do to save her, although chemotherapy could prolong her life.

However, he was shocked when he was told she would not be able to be seen by an oncology specialist to discuss treatment until after Christmas, making a busy season even more stressful.

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"It's always in the back of your mind when you're trying to do your other festive things," he said.

When the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, asked about the reason for the delay he was told it was because there was so much cancer now.

Cancer society medical director Dr Chris Jackson said the length of time cancer patients were forced to wait to see a specialist or begin treatment was a serious concern.

Cancer Society of New Zealand medical director Dr Chris Jackson has this week told two patients they won't be able to start chemotherapy before Christmas. Photo / Cancer Society of New Zealand
Cancer Society of New Zealand medical director Dr Chris Jackson has this week told two patients they won't be able to start chemotherapy before Christmas. Photo / Cancer Society of New Zealand

As a practising oncologist in Dunedin, he had to tell two patients this week that they couldn't start chemotherapy before Christmas because the oncology units were too busy.

"That must be unimaginably stressful for people who are waiting," he said.

Public holidays creating short weeks over Christmas was part of the problem but cancer services were coming under ever increasing pressure all year around.

The ageing population meant more people were being diagnosed with cancer and an increase in treatment tools meant more people were able to be treated, he said.

Pharmac was now funding new drugs to treat cancers but there was no extra funding for more doctors and nurses to deliver the treatments meaning oncologists had to juggle even more patients.

"While it's great we have these extra tools, we haven't been given the tools to implement it properly."

Jackson said it was shocking to see how far off hitting the treatment targets some health boards were.

Getting people treated quickly was essential, he said.

"Whenever anybody hears the words, 'You've got cancer', their whole world stops. You're whole life stops while you're waiting for that [treatment] to occur so we have an obligation to get people treated as quickly as possible.

"Cancer doesn't get smaller. The longer people wait, the bigger their cancer gets."

A Whanganui District Health Board report said 42 patients were strongly suspected to have cancer between April and June and, of those, 14 people waited longer than 62 days for their first treatment.

Analysis of delay codes found 44 per cent of treatment delays related to complex cases, 13 per cent to patient reasons and 44 per cent to capacity and system issues, the report said.

West Coast District Health Board general manager Philip Wheble said the organisation's failure to meet the target related to four people who were seen by a specialist but did not begin treatment within 62 days.

He said "incidental" findings when investigating cancer often had to be dealt with first.

"We have an ageing population and cancer is more prevalent in our older patients. This group of patients have other conditions that can complicate the decision to treat and rule out some first cancer treatments.

"We also have some patients that decline diagnosis, investigation and/or treatment for a variety of reasons."

Counties Manukau District Health Board deputy chief medical officer Dr Wilbur Farmilo said the organisation had consistently met the treatment target during the last six months.

The targets

• 85 per cent of patients receive their first cancer treatment within 62 days of being referred with a high suspicion of cancer and a need to be seen within two weeks.
• The target has increased to 90 per cent by June 2017.
• Health boards were also expected to provide a first treatment to patients confirmed to have cancer within 31 days of a decision being made to treat them.
• First cancer treatments can include surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, non-intervention management such as active surveillance or palliative care.