Earlier diagnosis should be a priority for further improvement in cancer services, the Department of Health's cancer czar Mike Richards has concluded.

In his first report on progress against the government's five-year cancer reform strategy, the national cancer director identifies as priorities tackling diagnostics delays and improving the quality and safety of chemotherapy.

Maintaining Momentum, Building for the Future says achievements include the launch of the national awareness and early detection initiative and the extension of bowel cancer screening.

Professor Richards said: "Cancer treatment in Britain has improved vastly in recent years and we are now beginning to see the impact on our survival rates.

"Recent cancer mortality figures for under 75s show that nearly 9,000 lives will have been saved in 2007 compared with 1996 and we are on course to meet our target of a reduction of at least 20 per cent in cancer death rates by 2010."

Keep up the momentum

Health minister Ann Keen welcomed the "excellent progress". She said: "The challenge now is to keep up this momentum and ensure that we continue to make further improvements."

Cancer Research UK chief executive Harpal Kumar added: "It is good to see so much improvement in cancer treatment but we still face a great challenge.

"We know that cancers are often being picked up too late and we could make an enormous difference if we could speed the process up."

To read Maintaining Momentum, Building for the Future, go to www.dh.gov.uk