CANCER patients are waiting longer to start their life-saving treatment in most of the region, worrying new figures show.

Up to one in five people suspected of having the disease are failing to get an appointment with a specialist within two months of a referral by their GP.

The proportion of patients beginning treatment within 62 days dropped in seven out of nine local NHS Trusts in the first three months of 2014 – sometimes dramatically.

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And that means five of the nine trusts are breaching a key Government target, which requires 85 per cent of patients to be seen within two months.

One is South Tees, where 83.6 per cent of suspected cancer sufferers saw a specialist within the time limit, down from 86.6 per cent on the same three months of 2013.

But performance was even worse at City Hospitals Sunderland (80.5 per cent) and Gateshead Health (80.4 per cent), the NHS England statistics reveal.

Across England, just 84.4 per cent of patients hit the 62-day target, which meant the NHS breached it for the first time since the benchmark was introduced in 2009.Labour seized on the figures, calling on the Government to “stop the slide in standards and get cancer services back on track”.

Andy Burnham MP, the party’s health spokesman, said: “David Cameron claimed his NHS re-organisation would improve cancer care. The reality is that he has in fact made it worse.

“Families across England are now facing longer, agonising waits for treatment. Experts are now warning that lives will be put at risk.”

But two trusts improved year-on-year, County Durham and Darlington (up from 86.6 per cent to 88.1 per cent) and Harrogate and District (88.7 per cent to 91.9 per cent).

A spokesman for South Tees NHS Trust linked its declining performance to rising referrals for more complex treatments at its “centre of excellence in radiotherapy”.

He said: “At the same time, we have seen a marked increase in referrals especially in lung and urology cancer pathways, due to the recent cancer awareness and screening campaigns.

“This has meant that more patients are waiting for cancer treatments but we have improved our performance over the last few months and achieved the target in April - provisionally 89.1 per cent.”

The spokesman said it had an action plan, which included working with neighbouring trusts to speed up referrals and increasing capacity for diagnostics.

The figures were released amid growing warnings that the NHS faces disaster without an urgent cash injection – put at £30bn by 2020, by some experts.

The NHS in Labour-run Wales (89.7 per cent) – frequently attacked by Coalition ministers - now outperforms England on the key cancer waiting time measure.

A Department of Health spokesman said an extra £750m had been pumped into early cancer treatment, but urged health chiefs to tackle “any dips in local performance”.