Cancer is a serious diagnosis; in many cases it is life-threatening. A doctor or team of medical professionals should be able to accurately and quickly diagnose such a critical disease, in order to get the patient immediate treatment and potentially extend their life. But in many cases, cancer diagnoses are missed or delayed, and several factors are to blame.
Cancer is a disease characterized by out-of-control cell growth. It can happen just about anywhere in the body and spread throughout. Because of its ability to thrive throughout the body, symptoms of cancer vary widely and diagnosis is based not only on these symptoms, but on lab tests like biopsies and blood analyses.
Just how common is a cancer misdiagnosis?
Determining cancer misdiagnosis rates is not easy. In some cases, a doctor may miss the signs for a few months or just a few days before they realize the symptoms a patient presents could be cancer. The misdiagnosis can go unreported and may not even be mentioned in a patient’s clinical file. The patient himself might be kept in the dark.
A 2013 study from Best Doctors and the National Coalition on Health Care found a survey of more than 400 doctors and pathologist believed cancer misdiagnosis rates to be somewhere between 0 and 10 percent. The BMJ Quality and Safety journal puts that figure much higher at 28 percent. This marked difference between suspected reality and the perception by doctors is not a surprise—who would admit their profession made so many life-threatening errors?
A different study from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD., found one out of every 71 cases of cancer in a 6,000 sample pool was misdiagnosed. The researchers there reviewed tissue samples from the thousands of cancer patients and found many didn’t have cancer at all. Further, one in five cancers were misclassified.
Why is cancer misdiagnosed?
There are several reasons a cancer case could be misdiagnosed, but the general consensus is that it often happens in the pathology department, as tissue samples are analyzed under a microscope. In that study of 400 doctors, responses indicate medical professionals believe cancer misdiagnoses are the fault of pathology departments, including a lack of resources in those departments, some 22 percent of the time. A misread tissue sample could result in a cancer diagnosis for a patient who is perfectly healthy, or a clean bill of health for someone whose body is wrought with the disease.
That same survey, however, indicated doctors believe a lack of information across medical systems is to blame more than 38 percent of the time. This could be due to a lack of communication between doctors (say your family doctor to your specialist), or flawed and incomplete electronic medical records (EMRs).
The solution for many patients diagnosed with cancer, or diagnosed with a clean bill of health after a biopsy, is seeking another opinion. You can have your slides examined by another pathologist and you don’t have to accept the initial diagnosis if you have doubts.
Scan the headlines or search for “cancer misdiagnosis” and you’ll find these problems are not unusual. Recently, a New Mexico woman filed a breast cancer misdiagnosis lawsuit alleging medical malpractice after a cancerous tumor was left in her breast untreated for several years.
A lump appeared in her first mammogram in 2007. She was assured it was benign. Again she was assured it was benign in 2009, 2010, and 2011. In 2012, another doctor reviewed her file and ordered a closer look. Not only had the mass grown significantly, it was cancerous. The patient underwent a full mastectomy and is now seeking justice in the legal system.
What would have happened if the other doctor hadn’t reviewed her file? Her doctor says she wouldn’t have lasted another six months.
Quick and accurate diagnoses are crucial no matter your health concern, but especially when it’s something as serious as cancer. Medical mistakes can be expensive and potentially cost you your life.
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