To tackle cancer, one of the world’s most aggressive killers, we need to catch it quickly. Early, accurate diagnoses are often a patient’s only hope of survival. But there’s another killer that our society doesn’t seem ready to face. Every year, cancer misdiagnoses steal days, months, and even years, from thousands of patients and families.
Can I File A Cancer Misdiagnosis Lawsuit?
We’ve spoken to hundreds of families who have been affected by a cancer misdiagnosis. Many patients are incorrectly told they have a benign condition, while malignant cells spread unchecked to new tissues and new organs. Some are shocked to learn their symptoms are being caused by a cancer, one they don’t actually have. Others find out only too late that a cancer has progressed beyond the point of treatment.
In fact, it seems like almost every cancer patient has a misdiagnosis story to tell.
Around one-third fear bankruptcy, after being saddled with exorbitant bills for treatments that just don’t work. All the while, partners and children consumed by anxiety watch as their loved ones suffer. Through all these situations, one thing remains true: every misdiagnosis is a tragedy. But we believe no patient should be treated as one, abandoned as a lost cause.
Was My Misdiagnosis Medical Malpractice?
While 35% of all medical malpractice lawsuits involve an incorrect diagnosis, not every misdiagnosis of cancer is an example of medical malpractice. Diagnosing a malignancy can be extremely difficult; there’s much we don’t yet know about these diseases.
But some delays in diagnosis aren’t innocent, and none are benign. Doctors who hand down misdiagnoses out of negligence can be held accountable.
Every viable medical negligence lawsuit is based on a simple, ethical principle: there’s a right way to do things and there’s a wrong way.
That’s why we trust our physicians so much; they’ve gone through years of education and practical training to learn the right way. In legal terms, we call this a “standard of care.” Proving that your doctor violated their standard of care and caused you harm is critical to winning a cancer misdiagnosis lawsuit.
Standards Of Care: Did A Doctor Violate Your Trust?
Since every cancer is different, a physician’s standard of care will change depending on the malignancy in question. In an actual lawsuit, our attorneys consult medical experts to define the specific standard of care that should have been followed, and identify where things went wrong.
But there’s a basic code that every general practitioner has to obey, and it comes down to intuitive steps like:
- referring patients with troubling symptoms to a specialist
- addressing all of a patient’s symptoms, rather than focusing on a handful
- communicating effectively with other members of the healthcare team
- ordering additional tests to rule out other potential diagnoses
You don’t have to be a doctor to know that those guidelines are just good sense. But we’re sure you’d be surprised to learn how many physicians fail to uphold them. When they do, and patients are hurt, families can take their first step on the path to recovery by filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Who Can Be Held Accountable?
Most misdiagnosis suits are filed against primary care physicians, a patient’s general practitioner. In fact, failing to refer a patient to a specialist is a leading cause of malpractice claims. But many of health care’s “behind the scenes” players can also be held accountable for their negligence.
Radiologists and other diagnostic technicians, pathologists who interpret biopsies and cancer-specific specialists like cytotechnologists (who investigate Pap smears) make critical errors at alarming rates.
For one example, we can turn to mammograms, the x-ray pictures that help doctors diagnose breast cancer. According to the American Journal of Roentgenology, anywhere from 30% to 70% of all the breast tumors caught in follow-up mammograms are found to be visible on initial x-rays, but were originally defined as “normal.” Not all of those missed opportunities are examples of negligence, but some are.
In any event, “behind the scenes” doesn’t equal free from liability. Radiologists and pathologists can be held accountable just like doctors.
When A Diagnosis Comes Too Late
Nearly 1 out of every 2 people will develop cancer at some point in their lives. But how many will learn early enough to have any hope of combating the disease? A late or delayed cancer diagnosis leaves patients facing an advanced-stage cancer that could and should have been detected earlier. Radical treatments, like chemo and radiotherapy, may be the only option, or there may be no options left.
Filing a delayed diagnosis lawsuit is one way for families to begin preparing for a brighter future. As in a misdiagnosis claim, you’ll have to prove that a doctor’s violation of the standard of care caused you or your loved one harm.
But the notion of “harm” takes on a different meaning for late cancer diagnoses: a reduction in a patient’s likelihood of survival.
Delayed diagnoses most commonly affect people with breast, cervical and colorectal cancers, since many patients receive mammograms, Pap tests and colonoscopies at regular intervals throughout their adult lives.
5 Types Of Cancer That Are Commonly Misdiagnosed
Cancer is one of the disease world’s most effective “mimics.” While it’s imprecise to lump every type of cancer together, many forms present either no early symptoms, or symptoms that are “nonspecific.” These side effects could be caused by any number of benign conditions, too.
1. Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is both the most common type of cancer and the most commonly misdiagnosed. When caught early, breast cancer can be treated effectively; in fact, the five-year survival rate for a stage 1 tumor is 100%.
But any delay can have disastrous consequences. Once breast cancer has spread (usually to the liver, lungs or lymph nodes), and progressed to stage 4, only 22% of patients will live another five years.
In 2015, researchers assessed the accuracy of pathologists, asking them to diagnose breast tissue that had already been conclusively identified as malignant or benign. 13% of the benign samples were diagnosed as “malignant,” and a full 48% of the early tumors were missed.
Lymphoma, both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s, is almost never diagnosed on symptoms alone. Vague effects like fatigue and weight loss, even swollen lymph nodes, can be dismissed outright, or chalked up to the flu or infections.
As with any other cancer, doctors must take a holistic view when facing a possible lymphoma diagnosis. Rather than relying heavily on isolated test results, physicians should try to gather a wealth of evidence. That’s just common sense, and its what patients deserve.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is most often diagnosed in patients between the ages of 20 and 34, leading to the misconception that it’s only a “young person’s” disease. Some physicians even overlook apparent symptoms of the cancer and opt for more “rational” diagnoses.
3. Lung Cancer
Radiologists take on one of their greatest challenges in diagnosing lung cancer. Small malignant tumors can be confused for numerous benign conditions, posing a risk of misdiagnosis both for patients with lung cancer and those with non-malignant growths.
In this case, risk factors can be more hindrance than help. While tobacco use drastically increases the risk of lung cancer, 99% of the “questionable” nodules identified on CT scans aren’t malignant, even in those who smoke.
Even with proper treatment, 85% of patients with lung cancer will die within five years, according to MedPage Today. When the odds are already stacked against them, patients don’t just deserve competent care, they need it.
4. Ovarian Cancer
Chronically misdiagnosed, ovarian cancer presents early symptoms, abdominal pain, bloating and constipation, that many doctors all too eagerly dismiss as IBS or a urinary tract infection. Some go so far as to tell women that their symptoms are entirely mental. They’re often wrong.
A recent survey sent out by the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition revealed that of 250 women, more than two-thirds were initially misdiagnosed. For 70%, their doctors “never even mentioned the possibility of ovarian cancer.”
Far and away the most frequently diagnosed cancers, skin cancers like melanoma are also often overlooked.
Misdiagnoses are particularly tragic in the case of melanoma, since it’s eminently treatable when caught early. But it rarely is; 11 expert dermatologists gathered by the University of Pennsylvania agreed on a tumor’s diagnosis only 35% of the time.
In 2008, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery sent a survey to 271 skin specialists. An astonishing 90% were treating patients who had been initially misdiagnosed by nonspecialists.
How Common Is Cancer Misdiagnosis?
After consulting 400 of the country’s best cancer specialists, the National Coalition on Health Care found that almost one-third of all patients are initially misdiagnosed, either told they have cancer when they don’t or told their cancer is something benign.
Misdiagnosis is a major threat to patient safety. Nearly 10% of the injuries suffered by patients in the hospital are caused by a misdiagnosis, according to a team at Harvard Medical School. But what lies at the root of those judgment errors may shock you. It’s almost always negligence. An astounding 77% of the diagnostic errors identified by Harvard were caused by completely avoidable mistakes.
That’s more than 3 out of every 4 misdiagnosed patients suffering real harm due to a medical professional’s negligence. No wonder misdiagnosis is the leading cause of action in medical malpractice lawsuits. Even worse? Over the last 75 years, there’s been no drop in the rate of serious misdiagnoses.
Our understanding of malignancy may be increasing by leaps and bounds, but the care and attention paid by medical professionals on the ground is lagging far behind.
Will I Need An Attorney To File For Me?
Technically no, but it’s strongly advised. Some domains of personal injury law can be handled without a qualified lawyer, like a small claim for damage sustained in a car accident. But medical malpractice is different.
For one, the laws surrounding medical negligence are extremely complex. Insurance companies have pressured state legislatures into making malpractice laws some of the most complicated. Adding to the intricacy, these statutes and regulations vary widely from state to state, so it’s best to consult an experienced attorney in your area.