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Cancer Misdiagnosis: Patients' Rights

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The Importance of Early Detection

Early detection is the key to successfully treating most types of cancer. The sooner the physician is able to determine that a patient has cancer, the sooner the physician can develop a course of appropriate treatment for the disease. Sometimes, however, doctors misdiagnose cancer. They may mistake it for another condition or fail to make the diagnosis until the disease has progressed to the point where invasive treatment is needed - or, in the worst-case scenario, where treatment is no longer effective.

How Misdiagnosis Can Occur

Some estimates show that cancer is misdiagnosed in up to 12 percent of cases. While this number may not seem especially high, given that approximately 1 million people are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. each year, this would mean that as many as 120,000 people annually are incorrectly diagnosed.

Some of the most commonly misdiagnosed cancers include:

  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Renal cancer
  • Throat cancer

Misdiagnosis may occur in many different ways. It is a common practice for health insurance companies to require patients to see a family doctor or general practitioner before they can see a specialist. But the family doctor may not have the experience or expertise to correctly diagnose all types of cancer and may not refer the patient to see the proper specialist. This, in turn, can lead to a delay in diagnosis.

Once a patient sees a specialist, the specialist also may misdiagnose the cancer as another illness or condition. If the specialist suspects the patient has cancer, he or she may take a sample of tissue for a biopsy. If the specialist does not take enough tissue for a proper sample, however, the biopsy test may return an incorrect result.

The specialist may order other types of tests in addition to or instead of a biopsy, including blood tests and CT scans. Radiologists generally are the first physicians to read the results from these tests. If the radiologist reads the test incorrectly, the patient may not receive the correct diagnosis.

Cancer misdiagnosis cases also include instances in which a patient is diagnosed as having cancer when in fact the patient does not. In the most appalling cases, patients may undergo invasive surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and other medical treatments before it is discovered that they not have the disease.

What Options Do Patients Have?

Seek a second opinion. Patients who believe their physician may have misdiagnosed their condition - whether or not they believe they have cancer - should seek a second medical opinion. If necessary, a third doctor should be consulted. If a patient is not satisfied with the diagnosis made by the physician and does not seem to be getting any better, there is no harm in asking another doctor for an opinion.

Consult an attorney. Patients who have suffered harm because of a cancer misdiagnosis have legal options, including filing a medical malpractice claim. Physicians owe a duty to their patients to provide them provide them the standard of care that is accepted in the medical community. When physicians provide substandard care, patients typically have the right to compensation for the resulting injuries they may suffer.

With more than 1 million new cases of cancer diagnosed each year, cancer patients' lives depend on early detection and treatment of the disease by competent and knowledgeable physicians. A misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of cancer can result in missed treatment options and, potentially, the death of a patient who otherwise may have lived. If you have reason to believe that your doctor has missed your cancer diagnosis, seek appropriate medical care and contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to discuss your legal options.