Receiving a cancer diagnosis is one of the most devastating moments in a person’s life. But even worse is when that diagnosis comes with at a late stage, greatly decreasing the probability of long-term survival. When doctors fail to recognize symptoms, follow well-known standards of care, or disregard medical complaints, it’s the patients who suffer.
Common Cancers for Late Diagnosis
To help keep you and your family educated, we’ve provided research on the most commonly misdiagnosed cancers, and how you can seek recourse in the tragic event of medical malpractice.
Cervical cancer screening is done via a pap smear, which you should receive every 3 years from ages 21-65. There are 2 main reasons why cervical cancer is missed. First is that the woman did not receive regular pap smears, either by choice, or because her physician failed to recommend them. Second is that sometimes the pap smear doesn’t “catch” the cancerous cells; it isn’t a perfect test.
Symptoms of the cancer include vaginal bleeding or discharge, or pain during sex. All of these can be misattributed to a woman’s menstrual cycle, especially if she has a history of irregularity. Discharge can have many causes, and pain during sex is an unfortunately common complaint among women. Sadly, if a doctor fails to put the pieces together, cervical cancer may go unnoticed until later stages.
Did You Know?BreastCancer.Org
Breast Cancer is usually discovered either during a clinical breast exam or routine mammogram. An abnormal result may be followed by an MRI and/or a tissue biopsy. In clinical exams, a doctor might miss a tumor that is too small to be felt. Or, the physician may see a woman with dense breast tissue or a mass difference between breasts and mistakenly think the breasts are normal, especially since many women do have slight size differences. A doctor who fails to recommend or perform routine mammograms for women over 40 would also be at fault for a missed diagnosis.
Unfortunately, diagnosing breast cancer is tricky. Most people trust biopsies as the gold standard, but these are often misread by pathologists who don’t specialize in breast cancer. The result is an astounding number of false positive diagnoses, which may lead to surgery like a mastectomy, that wasn’t truly needed.
Colorectal (colon) cancer is usually missed due to a lack of screening, or the wrong type of screening. Colonoscopy guidelines are clear and well-known, so if your physician isn’t following those provided by multiple national organizations, it is possible for them to miss your cancer. Even with screening, it is possible to miss subtle cancers, which may not be clinically visible during testing.
Though there are several screening types available today, colonoscopies remain the #1 way to detect polyps and colon cancer. Though the test isn’t perfect, it’s the best we have right now, in comparison. For example, a sigmoidoscopy uses a flexible tube to enter the lower colon, and may be less stressful for a patient, because it requires less preparation, and the patient is not “put out” during the procedure. However, a sigmoidoscopy only checks the lower colon. If a cancer is growing in the upper region of your colon, a sigmoidoscopy might miss it completely.
There is no standard screening for endometrial cancer at this time, though sometimes pap smears can show endometrial abnormalities. Most endometrial cancers are diagnosed first clinically, by symptoms, and then confirmed by a transvaginal ultrasound or endometrial biopsy.
In many cases, endometrial cancer is caught early; in its beginning stages, the cancer is highly curable. However, a physician might miss the signs of endometrial cancer if they are not paying attention to their patient’s complaints. Many of the symptoms, like abnormal bleeding, pelvic pain and weight gain, are also easily associated with menopause– which is when endometrial cancer is most likely to develop.
Did You Know?American Cancer Society
For people with a history of significant smoking, annual screening is recommended, using a technique called low-dose computed tomography (LDCT). Otherwise, there is no recommended or standard screening for lung cancer.
First, LDCT is not without risks for misdiagnosis. The test can have false positive results, possibly leading to unnecessary surgeries or further tests. LDCT can also lead to overdiagnosis, or diagnosis of a problem that may never have worsened on its own. Finally, repeated radiation from LDCT can in some cases cause cancer in healthy people.
Most lung cancer is found first clinically. Unfortunately, many of the symptoms (cough, wheezing, shortness of breath and headache) can be easily mistaken for other conditions, or even viral infections. If lung cancer is suspected, most people have a chest x-ray to confirm. Again, there is a huge potential here for human error. In fact, nearly 90% of lung cancer misdiagnosis is attributed to a misread radiograph (x-ray).
Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer for men, affecting nearly 16% of all men during their lifetime. Still, the disease can be difficult to diagnose, both clinically and via testing.
Clinically, the symptoms of prostate cancer are often confused with the signs of aging, especially since the majority of prostate cancer cases occur in men over age 65. Symptoms like back pain, trouble urinating and erectile dysfunction are considered by many to be a natural part of aging, which means men might not mention them to their doctors– or that their physician will wave away concerns.
Even testing for prostate cancer is difficult. Many many are asymptomatic in the early stages, and the cancer may not be palpable during a digital rectal exam. A prostate specific antigen test (PSA test) can be indicative– but antigen levels can be caused by multiple conditions, as well as some medications. Biopsies are difficult to get in the right spot, and can have false results. Plus, in older men, there is a chance that the tumor won’t affect their lives, which makes some doctors opt not to treat it. If a tumor is treated aggressively without true need, it might cause the patient more harm than simply leaving it alone.
Skin Cancer (Melanoma)
Especially in the early stages, skin cancer has very few symptoms, and may be completely asymptomatic. Most diagnoses of skin cancer come from visual suspicion, followed by a biopsy.
Because of the visual aspect, most missed skin cancers are the result of a lack of experience. An internist who sees a suspicious mole or skin lesion may not be specialized enough to recognize the abnormality. Or, with a rough or scaly patch of skin, the physician may think the patient has another type of rash or eczema, and treat for that instead of pushing for testing or sending the patient to a dermatologist.
Negligence in the Standard of Care
“Negligence” is defined as conduct that falls short of a standard of care. The standard of care refers to the due diligence required of doctors that is required both by their patients and the law. This standard is measured against the actions of a “reasonable person.” In this case, that would be how a doctor in the same speciality would reasonably treat a person under your circumstances.
Examples of Diagnostic Negligence
- Failing to provide standard screening per national recommendations, such as routine colonoscopies for those age 50+.
- Ignoring patient complaints and symptoms that align with a possible cancer diagnosis.
- Failing to seek further testing for symptoms or abnormal cancer screening results.
- Failure to refer a patient to an appropriate specialist (like a gynecologic oncologist for suspected cervical cancer).
- Failure to disclose, whether normal or abnormal, test results with the patient.
- Failure to consider a patient’s previous diagnoses or family history of cancer during diagnosis.
It is important to be aware of the screening guidelines for your age group and risk level. If you have a family history, genetic predisposition, or other factors that increase your risk of cancer, the guidelines for your care may be different. You can see national guidelines for many types of cancer on the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and American Cancer Society websites.
If you are a high-risk patient and feel your doctor was negligent, it is important to discuss this with your legal counsel, so that your case can be compared with proper recommendations for your circumstances.
Misdiagnosis is one type of negligence, which occurs when a physician attributes symptoms to the wrong disease. For example, a patient may come to their internist complaining of digestive symptoms that align with colorectal cancer. The internist then might diagnose the patient with irritable bowel syndrome, either discounting or failing to investigate additional symptoms that would indicate cancer.
Can I Sue My Doctor For Misdiagnosis?
We all acknowledge that mistakes happen. And sometimes those mistakes are unavoidable. But when they can be avoided, they should, and that is a doctor’s responsibility. If you are thinking about filing for a lawsuit, we’ve provided some helpful answers to questions you may have.
Why Should I Contact a Lawyer?
There are a few reasons to contact a lawyer. Remember, if your physician missed or ignored your symptoms, didn’t recommend screening or misdiagnosed your condition, they must be held responsible for their actions.
Filing a lawsuit can help you and your family cope with your situation, especially financially. In addition, it sends a message to the physician and the institution they work for, hopefully prompting them to provide better care for future patients.
How Do I Prove Malpractice for Something That Didn’t Happen?
To successfully sue a doctor for medical malpractice, the court will generally need establish of four conditions:
- The doctor had a legal duty of care for the patient, such as by providing screening or testing.
- The doctor failed to meet the standard of care.
- That failure resulted in injury to the patient, such as a delayed cancer diagnosis or a worse prognosis.
- Damages from the injury are assessable and redressable by the legal system.
Your lawyer will be able to explain the specific type of evidence you need show to demonstrate these conditions occurred, such as medical records or emails to and from your doctor.
What Compensation Can I Get for a Misdiagnosis?
In a failure to diagnose or misdiagnosis case, you may be eligible for both economic and noneconomic damages.
- Economic damages include medical bills, lost income, and future bills or losses that may result from your illness.
- Noneconomic damages cover the pain and suffering of you and your family, as well as issues of disfigurement or disability.
How much you can recover in economic and noneconomic damages may depend on the state where you live. A local lawyer may be able to provide estimates based on their previous experience, but ultimately how much you receive will be up to a jury or judge.