Failure to Diagnose Cancer

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Cancer is unfortunately a common medical condition that affects many people in this country. It affects children, adolescents, and adults. The types of cancer that affect each age group can vary widely. Cancer itself can also be slow-growing, fast-growing, or anything in between. Given the wide variety of cancers, the patterns of growth, and the patient’s characteristics, it is important for medical professionals to be aware of risk factors for, and signs and symptoms of, cancers so that they can diagnose them early, and treat them to minimize the chance that a person will suffer from cancer. 
 

Unfortunately, doctors and other healthcare professionals can fail to recognize when a patient has cancer, despite signs and symptoms of it. That can allow the cancer to grow without any treatment, which can increase the risk of additional pain, the need for more advanced treatment, and death. Healthcare providers may also fail to offer appropriate cancer treatment after the diagnosis, and this can lead to increased costs, significant pain, and poorer outcomes. When a medical professional fails to appropriately and timely diagnose cancer, or when a medical professional fails to treat cancer appropriately, the patient may have a medical malpractice claim. 

What is cancer?

Everyone’s body is made up of millions of cells. Generally, everyone’s cells function appropriately: they grow normally, divide, die, and replenish as needed. Cancer starts when something goes wrong in this process and your cells keep making new cells, and the old or abnormal ones don't die when they should. As the cancer cells grow out of control, they can crowd out normal cells. This makes it hard for your body to work the way it should.

There are two main types of cancers: hematologic (blood) cancer and solid tumor cancers. A tumor is a lump or growth in the body. Some tumors may be benign (not cancer) or may be malignant (cancer). Although there are similarities, different cancers can grow, spread, and respond to treatment differently.

Cancer is named for the part of the body where it started, regardless of how it grows. Cancers affect nearly every body system, including:

  • Head and Neck
  • Digestive System
  • Urinary System
  • Lungs
  • Breast
  • Reproductive System
  • Endocrine System
  • Skin
  • Bone and Soft Tissue
  • Eye
  • Blood and Lymph System

Common cancers include breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, colon and rectal cancer, melanoma, bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney cancer, endometrial cancer, leukemia, pancreatic cancer, thyroid cancer, and liver cancer.

When should I worry that I may have cancer?

Given the different types of cancers that exist, there is generally not one definitive sign or symptom that will make it clear that a patient has cancer. However, certain signs or symptoms may be suggestive of cancer, and should warrant further investigation by a healthcare provider. Although there are many signs and symptoms of cancer, common ones include:

  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue) that does not improve with rest
  • Weight loss or gain without any known reason
  • Swelling or lumps anywhere in the body
  • Pain that does not go away or gets worse
  • Unusual bleeding or bruising for no reason
  • Any new or unexplained change in your body habits

Certain patients are more at risk for developing cancer. For those patients, it is especially important that healthcare providers be aware of risk factors that may indicate that a patient’s complaints could be cancer. Some risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Smoking history
  • Family history
  • Obesity
  • Poor diet
  • Excessive sun exposure

When a patient has symptoms that may suggest cancer, especially when a patient has one or multiple risk factors, it is imperative that the healthcare provider consider cancer and perform tests to rule it in or out. Likewise, when a patient reports any major changes in the way his or her body works or with new, unexplained symptoms, the healthcare provider should always test for cancer as a potential cause. 

How is cancer diagnosed?

When cancer is suspected, a healthcare provider must perform tests to assess it. There are different types of tests that can be performed, including:

  • Imaging studies (like a CT scan or MRI)
  • Endoscopy procedures (where a tube-like instrument is inserted into the body to look inside)
  • Biopsy (where a small portion of a potential cancer is removed from the body and evaluated under the microscope to see if it is cancer)
  • Cytology (where a single or a small number of cells is removed from the body and evaluated under the microscope to see if it is cancer)

Once cancer is identified, additional tests (such as a PET scan) are done to see how big the cancer is, and whether it has spread from where it started. The size of the cancer and its spread within the body will determine the cancer’s stage. Cancer staging varies from Stage 0 to 4. A lower stage (stage 1 or 2) means that the cancer has not spread widely in the body. A higher number (stage 3 or 4) means that the cancer has spread more in the body. When cancer has spread to a new part of the body, that is called metastasis.

It is always important for the healthcare provider to follow-up with a patient to report the results of any of these studies. Too often, a healthcare provider receives the results of a test to evaluate a patient’s potential cancer, like an imaging study or a biopsy, yet fails to report the findings to the patient. In that case, the patient may never know of the cancer, and that can cause a delay in treatment. In that situation, which is known as a delayed diagnosis of cancer, the patient may have more treatment costs, decreased effectiveness of any potential cancer treatments, and increased pain and suffering. 

How is cancer treated?

There are many treatments available that may have a high rate of success in treating cancer. This will depend on the type and stage of the cancer at diagnosis. Healthcare providers should be able to provide you with a variety of treatment options, but it is always important to explore your options. Some types of cancer treatments include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Targeted Therapy (a type of therapy where drugs or other substances are used to attack certain types of cancer cells with specificity)
  • Immunotherapy
  • Stem Cell or Bone Marrow Transplant
  • Hormone Therapy

Thankfully, when caught early, there is a higher chance of success in treating cancer. It is for that very reason that it is important that a healthcare provider recognize the potential for cancer, test for it quickly, diagnose it, and initiate prompt treatment. 

Even when cancer is diagnosed, it is important that the healthcare team institute timely and appropriate cancer treatment. A healthcare provider’s failure to catch cancer early and start treatment can lead to poor outcomes, including death. Unfortunately, sometimes the healthcare team unnecessarily delays cancer treatment. Or, the team recommends unnecessary medications or surgery that fails to treat the cancer, allowing it to grow and spread. For this reason, it is important for a patient to confirm that he or she is receiving the appropriate care. If a patient’s cancer worsens, and if the cancer care was inappropriate, there may be a medical malpractice claim. 

How can a lawyer help me if I was diagnosed with cancer? 

When you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it is normal to be overwhelmed with emotions. You and your loved one likely have many questions about why you developed cancer, whether and how it will be treated, and whether the recommended treatment is the best option for your specific type of cancer. You may also be asking whether the cancer could have been caught earlier and, had it been diagnosed sooner, whether treatment would have been more effective. Often, doctors and other healthcare providers may be unwilling to answer these questions, leaving you even more confused and worried. 

Hiring an attorney who has experience in dealing with cases in which patients suffered from a delayed diagnosis with cancer can be extremely important to find the answers you deserve. An experienced medical malpractice attorney knows what questions to ask, what experts to contact, and what investigation is needed to hold healthcare providers who failed to diagnose your or your loved one’s cancer in a timely manner responsible. Having an attorney advocate for you will also increase your likelihood of obtaining the compensation you deserve for the unnecessary pain and suffering you and your family has to endure, and for medical expenses, lost wages, and other costs associated with your cancer diagnosis. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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