Effectively treating almost any type of cancer requires early detection, as cancer is one of the deadliest diseases in North America. Initiating treatment as soon as possible significantly improves the chances of survival. Unfortunately, an incorrect cancer diagnosis becomes more prevalent as more data becomes available.
Cancer misdiagnosis does occur, affecting a significant number of individuals each year. According to a 2020 Healthline article, nearly 12 million people experience misdiagnosis of cancer. Various factors contribute to medical professionals providing an incorrect cancer diagnosis, including:
- Mistaken identification of the cancer type initially
- Misinterpretation of the disease’s severity
- Misdiagnosis of cancer symptoms, leading to an inaccurate cancer diagnosis and prognosis
- Errors during the collection of tissue samples, in the laboratory, or cancer screening mistakes test results
- Ineffectiveness of the initially prescribed treatment plan due to the misdiagnosis
The Most Misdiagnosed Cancers
While all types of cancer can be misdiagnosed, certain types of cancer are more frequently missed by physicians. Some types of cancer present identical symptoms to other diseases; for example, lung cancer has similar symptoms to other respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis. For rarer forms of cancer, doctors may not be able to recognize the signs at all.
The following types of cancer are the most commonly misdiagnosed:
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Lung cancer
Misdiagnosis of breast cancer can have dire consequences. The survival rate for detection of early-stage breast cancer is nearly 100 percent, yet, only 28 percent of patients survive for five years or longer when breast cancer reaches stage IV, according to the American Cancer Society.. On the other hand, misdiagnosing a breast cancer patient can lead to unnecessary testing and/or invasive treatments.
Medical journals suggest that up to 31 percent of breast cancer cases are overdiagnosed, meaning doctors mistakenly diagnose precancerous cells that will not cause clinical problems or threaten the patient’s life as full-blown cancer. This is equally problematic that could result in unnecessary and aggressive cancer treatments for healthy individuals.
According to the American Cancer Society, mammograms fail to detect around 12 percent of breast cancer cases. The delay in detecting and treating breast cancer can be life-threatening for those patients.
Combining colon, rectum, and prostate cancer into one condition, colorectal cancer is another frequently misdiagnosed form of cancer. Typically diagnosed through a colonoscopy – recommended for patients aged 50 and above, and sometimes earlier depending on family history.
Most colon cancers initially develop as polyps – noncancerous growths – which can be biopsied or removed during the colonoscopy to prevent them from growing into cancer. The survival rate for colon cancer drops from 91 percent at stage I to a mere 14 percent at stage IV.
Lung cancer ranks as the second most common cancer in both men and women in the United States. A misdiagnosis of lung cancer can be particularly devastating.
The longer lung cancer goes undiagnosed, the worse the prognosis becomes. At stage 0, the survival rate for lung cancer ranges from 73 to 90 percent, but this falls to less than 10 percent at stage IV.
One reason for this is the slow growth rate of lung cancer. Early detection enables effective treatment, but it is challenging to diagnose the condition due to the limited symptoms in its initial stages. Often, symptoms that do present are mistaken for other conditions like shortness of breath, COPD or asthma.
Lymphoma is a cancer that affects the body’s immune system cells. Both Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma form in lymphocytes, which are white blood cells, and can sometimes manifest in the skin.
One reason for the high rate of misdiagnosis of lymphoma is its similarity of symptoms, such as fever, weight loss, fatigue, and excessive night sweats, to those of less severe conditions. Even the enlarged lymph nodes, a characteristic feature of lymphoma, can be attributed to common ailments like the common cold or infections, leading to misdiagnosis.
Melanoma, a rare but lethal form of skin cancer, is among the most frequently misdiagnosed cancers in the United States. In early stages, skin cancer may resemble eczema or other noncancerous conditions. Failing to see a dermatologist for testing on suspicious skin marks and growths could allow the skin cancer to progress to more severe, life-threatening stages.
Surprisingly, a misdiagnosis of skin cancers are due to errors in the laboratory. Collecting body tissue samples for testing, called a biopsy, are used in cancer detection. Pathologists who read the biopsies may not be fully knowledgeable in a particular type of cancer leading to mistakes.
Dealing with a delayed cancer diagnosis poses significant challenges. Misdiagnosis prevents patients from receiving timely treatment, allowing initially treatable early-stage cancer to progress to advanced or even terminal stages. Conversely, misdiagnosis might lead to unnecessary treatment for a disease the patient doesn’t actually have.
Upon learning of a cancer diagnosis, it is crucial to consult with a doctor about available options regardless of the stage. Even if one believes their primary physician is competent, seeking a second opinion is often a wise decision due to the prevalence of diagnostic errors.
Healthcare providers are subject to human error just like the rest of us, but that doesn’t absolve them of any responsibility or malpractice. A cancer misdiagnosis can cause significant financial and emotional burdens to you and your family.
If you have suffered from a cancer misdiagnosis, it’s important to seek legal representation from a medical malpractice firm. An experienced attorney can help you understand your legal options and hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions. In addition to seeking legal recourse, it’s also important to work with healthcare providers to ensure that you receive the appropriate medical care and support.
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