More than one in five cancer patients in South Tyneside are only diagnosed after an emergency admission to hospital, figures show.
The survival rates of emergency admission are substantially worse than GP referrals, as patients are more likely to have more advanced and difficult-to-treat cancers.
Cancer Research UK has called for more public awareness, better training for GPs and increased resources for the NHS to help ensure more people are diagnosed early.
In the 12 months to March, 919 patients were admitted to hospital with cancer in the NHS South Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) area, according to data published by Public Health England - most referred by their GP or breast or cervical screening programmes.
But 190 patients – 20.7% – were classed as an ‘emergency presentation of cancer’ - first diagnosed at the hospital, after coming to A&E or being treated for something else.
According to the latest figures, 50% of patients diagnosed at the NHS South Tyneside CCG had stage three or four cancer.
Dr David Hambleton, chief executive for NHS South Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), said: “Late diagnosis of cancer affects a patient’s chances of survival, so we work closely with GPs and patients to help raise awareness and encourage people to seek medical advice as soon as possible.
“Cancer is a leading cause of ill health and death in our area, and one of the biggest challenges faced by the CCG.”
Fiona Osgun of Cancer Research UK said it is important for patients to see their GP if they notice a change in their body.
She said: “Chances of survival can change so much if the cancer is diagnosed earlier or later.
“Generally, if the symptoms are severe enough to cause an emergency presentation, it is highly likely that the cancer is advanced.
“Treatment options are then limited, and in some cases you’re not going to be treating the patient for a cure by that point, but treating them palliatively.”
According to the latest annual Cancer Patient Experience Survey, 21% of cancer patients in South Tyneside who went to their GP surgery with a cancer-related health complaint before they were diagnosed said they saw their GP three or four times before being told to go to hospital.
But the reasons behind emergency presentations are “complex” and not necessarily the result of symptoms being missed by GPs, Ms Osgun said.
Some cancers, such as brain cancer, have vaguer or more sudden symptoms than others, while GPs are also reliant on the wider NHS system to investigate quickly after a referral.
She continued: “We know that endoscopy is really stretched in the NHS at the moment for instance, and we are going to see more and more pressure placed on them with an ageing population.
“We need more workers and money across the NHS. We need action on all fronts.”
Dr Jem Rashbass, cancer lead at Public Health England, said: “We publish the latest data on variation across the country to help commissioners and health providers better understand their cancer population and identify areas for improvement.
“Our Be Clear on Cancer campaigns aim to raise awareness of the symptoms of cancer and encourage those who have symptoms to go to their GP.”