Breast Cancer Misdiagnosis Is One of the Most Common Medical Malpractice Claims

There are two core issues related to cancer misdiagnosis – those that do not have cancer and are told that they do and those that are told they don’t have cancer, but actually do. Either situation can present serious risks to the patient. For those who are misdiagnosed as having cancer, unnecessary treatments can create harm. For those who are misdiagnosed as not having cancer, unnecessary delays can allow the disease to progress and put the patient’s life at risk. Neither of these scenarios is acceptable and both can lead to a rise in medical malpractice claims.

Breast Cancer Is on the Rise

Breast cancer has been on the rise since the 1970s but since 2000, the rates have increased even more each year. This is a growing concern for women and has drive increased testing – but not all of this testing is accurate. Some studies have suggested that overly frequent x-ray based breast screenings themselves can trigger (or contribute to) health problems including cancer. But the primary problem that leads to misdiagnosis (either a positive or negative result that is mistaken) is medical error.

Why a False Positive Can Be Devastating

A National Institutes of Health study showed that for women that begin having annual mammograms at age 40 have a greater than 61% chance of receiving a false positive at some point. You may think that a false positive is “better safe than sorry” but, in fact, it can trigger unneeded treatment that can destroy your health and body. One woman profiled by the New York Times lost a disfiguring chunk of one breast to unnecessary surgery triggered by a positive breast cancer misdiagnosis.

Woman whose screening results were read incorrectly were not only subjected to surgeries resulting in misshapen breasts and scarring, but were treated with radiation and chemotherapy when there was no disease present. Women that have undergone unneeded cancer therapy have suffered hair loss, depression, lesions and other negative consequences from the toxic chemicals and high-dose radiation. An estimated 1.3 million women have been wrongly diagnosed with cancer over the past three decades!

Why a False Negative Can Be Devastating

Any time there is an unnecessary delay in diagnosis and treatment, outcomes will typically be worse – especially with breast cancer. One such case cited by Harvard medical school was a woman that self-reported a breast lump. A mammogram was ordered but not specific to the area of the lump and her family history (which included breast cancer) was not obtained. It was a full year before she was properly diagnosed and over that year, her breast cancer metastasized to her spine!

Missed breast cancer diagnoses are the most common reason for medical malpractice suits against radiologists. The National Institutes of Health blames a “triad of error” which involves young patients, self-discovered breast lumps and negative mammograms. But in reality, it can be carelessness, lack of proper training, lab errors and even incompetence that lead to these terrible errors. Any delay in onset of treatment caused by missed or delayed diagnosis reduces survival rates for victims.

The Dangers of Diagnostic Procedures

Mammograms use 1,000 times the intensity of radiation that x-rays do and x-ray radiation is a known carcinogen! Because mammograms squash the breast tissue tightly, if there are cancerous cells, they can actually spread via this compression. Needle biopsies – which are often recommended as being a less invasive procedure than a lumpectomy – have a 50% chance of spreading any existing cancer to other areas of the breast according to the John Wayne Cancer Institute.

Of course breast cancer will remain a concern for many women. One of the least invasive ways to find out if you are at risk is to obtain genetic testing that can detect the presence of the BRAC genetic marker (also known as BRCA depending on the resource). This is a very strong indicator of your odds of developing breast cancer if it runs in your family. Increasingly, health insurance companies are footing the bill for this costly test. Understanding your options and seeking second opinions are prudent moves.

What to Do If You Were Misdiagnosed?

Being told you had breast cancer when you didn’t is no small thing – particularly if you were put through additional testing or treatments that were not medically necessary and put your health at risk, cost you money, time off from work or a loss in your quality of life. Of course you should be relieved when you finally get a correct diagnosis, but you should also demand accountability from the person, lab or facility that made the medical error – not only for what was done for you, but to prevent them from harming other women in the future!

And being told you had no health concerns when you actually had breast cancer is called a “delayed diagnosis” and is a very serious type of medical malpractice that should not be minimized. The later that cancer is diagnosed, the more aggressive the therapy will be and the less likely the victim is to survive the illness. If your health has been impaired or you lost a loved one because of misdiagnosis of breast cancer, the people, practices, labs or hospitals responsible should be held accountable so that other lives are not put at risk.

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