Rapid diagnostic pathways for cancer have been implemented, but evidence whether shorter diagnostic intervals (time from primary care presentation to diagnosis) improves survival is lacking. Using the Clinical Practice Research Datalink, we identified patients diagnosed with female breast (8,639), colorectal (5,912), lung (5,737) and prostate (1,763) cancers between 1998 and 2009, and aged >15 years. Presenting symptoms were classified as alert or non-alert, according to National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance. We used relative survival and excess risk modeling to determine associations between diagnostic intervals and five-year survival. The survival of patients with colorectal, lung and prostate cancer was greater in those with alert, compared with non-alert, symptoms, but findings were opposite for breast cancer. Longer diagnostic intervals were associated with lower mortality for colorectal and lung cancer patients with non-alert symptoms, (colorectal cancer: Excess Hazards Ratio, EHR >6 months vs <1 month: 0.85; 95% CI: 0.72-1.00; Lung cancer: EHR 3-6 months vs <1 month: 0.87; 95% CI: 0.80-0.95; EHR >6 months vs <1 month: 0.81; 95% CI: 0.74-0.89). Prostate cancer mortality was lower in patients with longer diagnostic intervals, regardless of type of presenting symptom. The association between diagnostic intervals and cancer survival is complex, and should take into account cancer site, tumour biology and clinical practice. Nevertheless, unnecessary delay causes patient anxiety and general practitioners should continue to refer patients with alert symptoms via the cancer pathways, and actively follow-up patients with non-alert symptoms in the community.