Skip to nav Skip to content

Emergency room (ER) providers are increasingly diagnosing cancer symptoms in the patients they see. It is important that ER providers refer these patients to a cancer expert, such as those at Moffitt Cancer Center, to receive specialized care at the onset for the best possible outcomes.

A retrospective study highlighted different cancer types and their diagnoses following a visit to the ER in the state of Indiana. According to this data, some of the most common cancer types that present in the ER and their symptoms include:

  • Pancreatic cancer (jaundice, pain, digestive difficulties, unexplained weight loss, fatigue)
  • Colorectal cancer (vomiting, bloating cramps, very dark stool, exhaustion, weight loss)
  • Lung cancer (persistent coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, a wet cough producing phlegm)
  • Liver cancer (fever, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, abominable pain, feeling full after a small meal)
  • Brain cancer (headaches, seizures, nausea, vomiting, fatigue)

One of the main features of these cancers is that they are more likely to create "alarm" symptoms that drive a patient to visit the emergency room. For example, a patient might ignore a severe cough, but they will seek emergency care if they are coughing up blood. Patients might also present with subtle symptoms that are associated with another disease but could be a sign of cancer.


Our neurosurgeons are eager to help you have your patient transferred expeditiously.

ER Diagnoses and Health Equity

Researchers are increasingly looking at why cancer diagnoses happen in the emergency room. One theory is that patients lack the resources or ability to receive preventative screenings for certain cancers. They also might not have the resources to visit a general provider when mild symptoms first occur. Instead, the patients continue to ignore their symptoms until cancer reaches a point where the body requires an urgent ER visit.

Consider the demographics who are most likely to receive a cancer diagnosis in the ER. Patients from lower socioeconomic groups and racial minorities have worse outcomes after an ER cancer diagnosis. Patients who speak foreign languages can’t find medical care from a provider who can communicate with them. These individuals also have fewer financial resources to seek primary care treatment or have a historic mistrust of the medical system. 

The Importance of Screenings and Preventative Care

Emergency room providers will likely see an uptick in cancer diagnoses because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting in 2020, many patients put off routine screenings and general physician appointments or their doctors canceled these checkups due to emergency cases. These screenings could have provided early diagnoses to patients. Instead, patients are left undiagnosed. As a result, more providers are making more advanced-stage cancer diagnoses because their patients are just now visiting their offices.

By the time a patient presents with cancer in the emergency room, it’s often too late to recommend screenings and preventative care. However, emergency room providers can partner with cancer experts at Moffitt to help families take the first steps to receive novel cancer treatment therapies or participate in a breakthrough clinical trial. Moffitt is here to help.

Referring patients with a confirmed or suspected cancer diagnosis to Moffitt at the onset provides them with the best chance of beating cancer. In addition to working on closing the care gap in health disparities, we are an internationally recognized leader in the development of scientific technology for detecting and treating cancer. We offer our patients access to the latest and advanced treatment therapies, outcomes that often exceed national averages, and a robust portfolio of clinical trials. Some of these clinical trials may not be available anywhere else.

Please call Moffitt's Transfer Center at 813-745-8404 to initiate the transfer process. Our physician liaison team is also available to assist you with outpatient referrals or complete our online form.  As part of our efforts to shorten referral times as much as possible, online referrals are typically responded to within 24 - 48 hours.