Data published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) states that cancer misdiagnosis rates are as high as 28%. A different study by John Hopkins Hospital found one in 71 cases was misdiagnosed. The sad fact is that a lot of these people will have died as a result of being misdiagnosed. There are also cases where a different disease is mistaken for cancer and the wrong treatment is administered. Unfortunately, there are several reasons why misdiagnoses happen, which we will examine below.
Most cancer misdiagnoses happen in the pathology lab. Tissue samples are read incorrectly, or scans are incorrectly interpreted.
Mammograms for breast cancer are a good example of how people end up being misdiagnosed. One of the markers for breast cancer in a mammogram is an area of unusual density on the image. However, some women naturally have denser breast tissue, young women especially, which can lead to a diagnosis of cancer when no cancerous cells exist.
It also happens that cancerous tumors are sometimes misdiagnosed as benign lumps, so the cancer continues to spread while the patient believes they are well.
Mistakes can happen when tissue is examined under a microscope, such as cervical cells from a cervical cancer screening. Pathologists are human and sometimes they make mistakes. If a pathologist is having a bad day or is tired, they may miss cancerous cells on a slide, which means the patient won’t be diagnosed and their cancer will likely spread.
Blood screening tests are another area where mistakes happen. Blood tests looking for cancer markers can help with early diagnosis, but they are not 100% reliable and cases slip through the net. For example, patients with suspected ovarian cancer will be tested for the CA-125 tumor marker. It is a reliable tool, as a woman with ovarian cancer will normally have an elevated level of CA-125 in her blood. However, other conditions cause an elevated level of CA-125, and in some women with ovarian cancer, a CA-125 test result is normal.
Failures in the Consulting Room
Cancer can also be misdiagnosed because symptoms are not specific. If a patient presents with a range of vague symptoms like bloating, constipation, and nausea, chances are their doctor will send them home with an IBS diagnosis. Often, this is the problem, but not always. Symptoms like this can also be indicative of deadly cancers like colon cancer, ovarian cancer, and stomach cancer.
It’s important if you have symptoms that don’t go away to seek a second opinion. Misdiagnoses can lead to devastating outcomes. If this does happen to you, speak to a lawyer specializing in this area.
There are also doctors who miss symptoms or dismiss patients’ concerns because they are inexperienced, overworked, or just biased toward the patient in their consulting room. Research studies have proven that women are more likely to be misdiagnosed with most things, including cancer, because of implicit bias in the medical profession.
Cancer is a killer but if diagnosed early, outcomes are more favorable. Be alert for symptoms and seek medical help if you have any concerns.