All forms of misdiagnosis resulting from negligence fall under the umbrella of medical malpractice. And yes, even cancer can be misdiagnosed. When I worked as a critical care nurse in the ER, I helped care for and treat many patients who were diagnosed with cancer while they were my patient. Some had to come to the ER because of their symptoms. For others, their cancer was found when they came in for something unrelated, like a workplace injury, a heart attack, or after a car accident. And for some, their true illness wasn’t diagnosed properly at first. If you or your loved one are in this situation regarding cancer misdiagnosis, I put together this article for you.

Types of Cancer Misdiagnosis

There are 4 types of cancer misdiagnosis. Any of them can be deadly, but even with a good prognoses, a misdiagnosis can also result in additional pain, mental stress, time away from family and work, and an increased financial burden.

Wrong cancer

By not treated the right cancer, the treatments aren’t planned and targeted properly for the maximum affect. Even if this error is caught before treatments begin, the cancer has grown unchecked while plans were being made that won’t help you, and the testing, imaging, and planning must start again to make an appropriate and effective plan. You may have made decisions about where your cancer would be treated based on the wrong data, and may now need to scramble to get to another doctor, hospital, or clinic that’s more successful in treating this type of cancer.

Not actually cancer

While we’d all probably say that we’d rather learn we don’t have cancer than we do, the emotional and financial burden a false diagnosis of cancer brings is significant. It’s also wasted time that increases the negative consequences to your health. It’s very rare that someone is diagnosed with cancer, then learns that absolutely nothing is wrong with them. This does sometimes happen, when a benign cyst is found for example, but more often there is another illness or condition causing the symptoms that were misdiagnosed as cancer. While you were coming to terms with your erroneous diagnosis and making plans for your treatment, your true condition or disease progressed unchecked. And only by identifying that cancer isn’t the culprit can you begin the journey toward learning what’s truly wrong. More time spent on tests and in hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices means more money you’re spending that you shouldn’t have had to spend, and even more time away from work and your family.

Actually is cancer

Learning that you were initially misdiagnosed and that you have cancer is emotionally, financially, and physically devastating. Your cancer wasn’t being treated during that time and the treatment plans that may have been drawn up don’t apply. Or perhaps you were sent him, told there was nothing wrong with you, and your cancer grew. You will now need another round of tests and imaging to determine the exact location and size of the mass or lesion, as well as to learn how advanced the cancer is. Your time was already wasted on your misdiagnosis once, and now you must wait even longer to begin treatment.

Wrong patient

This happens rarely, but unfortunately I have seen cases where samples were swapped at a lab or results were swapped in the a computer system. The last time you gave blood at your doctor’s office, you probably had to confirm your name on many barcoded stickers that were added to your sample bottles. Stringent procedures are in place to keep this from happening, and negligence breaking the standard of care is required for this type of misdiagnosis to occur. Still, I’ve taken cases where samples were lost completely, resulting in more testing, time, pain, money, and a delayed diagnosis. It can happen to people who are new patients or to people who have visited an oncologist or other specialist for years. It can even happen to people who work in the very hospital where their samples were taken or analyzed.

What is the Standard of Care?

Standard of care is determined by what another reasonable person would have done, knowing what your healthcare provider knew, in the exact same circumstances. I wrote an article explaining standard of care in more depth. Amongst people who have been diagnosed with cancer, I’ve heard many stories of medical providers dismissing their patient’s complaints and concerns about their symptoms, then refusing to record their symptoms. Even if the medical professional doesn’t think the symptoms are anything to worry about, they are obliged to record them as they could be related to a known or unknown condition. Not doing so is negligent and, if it results in or contributes to a wrong or delayed diagnosis, it’s also medical malpractice.

Image of family dealing with cancer.

How Often Does Cancer Misdiagnosis Occur?

According to Boston Medical Journal’s Quality and Safety journal, cancer misdiagnosis may occur up to 28% of the time. However, when doctors in the Boston area were surveyed by Best Doctors, Inc. and the National Coalition on Health Care, they found that doctors believe cancer misdiagnosis rates are between 0 and 10 percent. The study also revealed that doctors believe lymphoma is the most misdiagnosed cancer, followed by breast cancer, sarcomas, and melanomas. Reality, however, is very different.

I know, and I hope you know, that most doctors really do care about their patients. They are also well trained and passionate about the area of medicine they practice. But doctors today are working in an overburdened health care system, often with incomplete medical records. Tests and imaging that a doctor orders may take a several days to be completed, even in a hospital environment. More complex testing may take even longer. A hospital may not have access to a doctor’s or another hospital’s medical records, which would help them make an accurate diagnosis. Computer system or data entry errors may fail to link a patient to their medical records, or might link them to the wrong patient’s records. And, of course, negligence on behalf of the hospital, clinic, doctor, nurse, tech, or pathologist could also result in a devastating misdiagnosis.

If your cancer was misdiagnosed or if your diagnosis was delayed due to human or computer error, please take it seriously. I can help you cut through the noise and figure out what really happened to lead to your misdiagnosis and who is responsible.

How Is Cancer Misdiagnosed?

Cancer is often misdiagnosed due to faulty tests or human error during the testing process. In most cases, the tests that doctor’s run to determine if something is cancerous aren’t like a Covid or pregnancy test. Fluid, blood, or a biopsy of a tumor is taken from the body, and the pathologist looks at the samples under a microscope. A pathologist is an expert at studying and diagnosing diseases, but two different pathologists could look at a sample and come to different conclusions about what the cells are doing and whether or not they are cancerous. In this way, many cancer tests are subjective. I always recommend that people who receive a cancer diagnosis go to a doctor or facility that specializes in that type of cancer for further testing and a second opinion. Pathologists who are used to studying that specific type of cancer have the skills and training to tell with higher accuracy if you really do have this type of cancer. If it’s not, they may also be better able to tell you what’s really responsible for your symptoms and any strange-looking cells.

What are Common Cancer Tests that Fail?

Not everyone has a general practitioner who can help them screen for cancers and address concerning symptoms. For many people, the only time they see a doctor is when they’re really sick, and then the ER or a med clinic is their only option. But some cancers are also so aggressive, that even with regular testing and screening, they can still pop up at the ER.

In my nearly 30 years as a medical malpractice attorney, two common cancer tests stand out for giving false positives or false negatives.

Blood Tests for Tumor Markers

Tumor markers are chemicals that are commonly released by cancerous cells. Finding them in a person’s blood indicates that a tumor is likely in the body, or that a known tumor or lesion is cancerous. However, some of these markers occur in the body naturally, and elevated rates may not be the result of cancer but of another illness or disease the body is attempting to fight. The markers may also be common to multiple types of cancer, but doctors inaccurately conclude they must be resulting from a specific type of cancer. Furthermore, some cancer patients do not have any tumor markers in their blood at all. These tests should not be treated as wholly conclusive, though they often are.

Mammograms for Breast Cancer

Mammograms are one of the most common cancer screening methods, but they also commonly result in false positives and false negatives. High breast tissue density, which is controlled by genetics, can obscure the mammogram’s ability to identify potentially cancerous masses and lesions. Younger woman also tend to have higher breast tissue density, resulting in more false results and a higher rate of cancer misdiagnosis than in older women. Positive results from mammograms are routinely confirmed via sonogram, however, there isn’t an easy secondary test to confirm negative results.

Can I Sue for Cancer Misdiagnosis?

Misdiagnosing cancer is a form of medical malpractice and, yes, you can sue over it. As with other forms of medical malpractice, 4 criteria must be proved for a medical professional or institution to be found guilty of medical malpractice.

  1. A relationship exists between your medical provider (you were being treated by the person who made the error or your samples were being examined by their lab)
  2. The medical professional or institution was negligent, resulting in an error (standard of care was not met)
  3. The negligence caused an injury to the patient
  4. The patient suffered actual injuries as a result of the negligence

How can an institution be negligent? Maybe their computer system wasn’t properly backed up and all your records were lost. Perhaps their policies didn’t ensure your samples were secured or labeled properly. Or maybe an error in the automated notification system didn’t let the doctor or you know about your positive results.

If you aren’t sure if your case of cancer misdiagnosis meets the 4 criteria for medical malpractice, and if you received the misdiagnosis within the past two years, call my office today to set up a free consultation. (There are exceptions to the statute of limitations, especially for children.) As a registered nurse, I know how hospitals and laboratories work and I’m familiar with standard of care. I can easily read medical records and terminology and am very good and discerning where negligence may have occurred. I have personally cared for cancer patients over the years as a nurse and I have walked through the diagnosis process with many of them. If this has happened to you, I want to help you through it and make sure the negligent people and institutions are held responsible. In doing so, we’re helping to secure your future and provide for your family. We’re also protecting others, making sure they don’t go through what you have.

Learn more about misdiagnosis here and contact my office as soon as possible to set up your free consultation.

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Tracey L. Dellacona

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