Nearly one in five people diagnosed with cancer are waiting more than two months for treatment, the latest figures have revealed.
NHS Scotland statistics show that 82.7% of patients urgently referred with a suspicion of cancer received treatment within the 62-day target between October and December 2018.
Just one Scottish health board – NHS Lanarkshire — hit the Scottish Government’s 95% target.
The percentage of patients starting treatment in the 62 days after referral was 4.4% lower in the last three months of 2018 compared to the final quarter of 2017.
However, the number of patients with cancer referred in that period rose by 398 to 3,791, an 11.7% increase.
Treatment for women with cervical cancer showed an alarming drop, with just 53.7% of patients starting treatment within two months, compared to 89.7% between July and September 2018.
Meanwhile, NHS Scotland narrowly missed the 95% target for people starting treatment within 31 days after a decision about the treatment is made, dropping from 95.2% to 94.9% in the last quarter of 2018.
The 31-day standard was met by nine of the 15 NHS Boards: Ayrshire & Arran, Borders, Dumfries & Galloway, Fife, Golden Jubilee National Hospital, Lanarkshire, Lothian, Shetland and the Western Isles.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said: “We’re treating more patients within both standards than the previous quarter and, once a decision to treat has been reached, patients in Scotland wait on average five days for treatment – a reduction from six days in the previous quarter for the 31-day standard.
“However, these figures show that some patients are waiting too long from urgent referral to treatment.
“I have been clear with health boards that cancer patients must continue to be prioritised.”
The statistics follow news that the Scottish Government is putting money towards a strategy to tackle waiting times for people with a suspicion of cancer.
Ms Freeman added: “Our revised Endoscopy Action Plan, backed by £6 million, aims to ensure new patients are seen within six weeks for key endoscopic tests.
“The most urgent patients, including those suspected with cancer, will be prioritised and seen between two to three weeks.
“This builds on our £850 million Waiting Times Improvement Plan, which aims to drive down waiting times across all specialties, including cancer diagnosis and treatment, outpatient appointments and day case procedures.
“We are committed to significantly improving the experience of patients waiting to be seen or treated.”
Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK’s head of external affairs in Scotland, said: “These figures show a service under huge strain with too many patients waiting too long.
“Early diagnosis and prompt treatment delivers much better results for patients and yet cancer waiting time targets in Scotland are routinely missed.
“There are already shortages among key staff such as endoscopists and radiologists.
“If the NHS is to meet increasing demand, as well as diagnose as many patients as early as possible, the Scottish Government must plan to meet current and future need.
“New ways of organising services are needed, along with new investment which must reach the front line without delay.”
Scottish Labour said that 2,436 people waited too long to begin cancer treatment in 2018.
The party’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health, Monica Lennon said: “Behind these statistics are thousands of people enduring a worrying wait to begin treatment.
“Scottish Labour has long supported a two-week waiting time for cancer diagnosis to raise survival rates.
“The Health Secretary must set out in detail how she will urgently increase capacity in cancer detection and treatment to deliver the care that people need.”