Cancer is one of the disease world’s most effective chameleons. In symptoms and effects, many of the most common cancers closely mimic other diseases. This makes abnormal cell growth, in any form, particularly difficult to diagnose. Difficult, however, does not mean impossible. Over centuries of research and clinical experience, generations of medical professionals have developed an effective standard for diagnosing and treating tumors.
Violations of this standard are the basis of all viable medical malpractice claims.
13 Commonly Misdiagnosed Cancers
But every cancer is tackled with a different standard. By the same token, certain malignancies are more difficult to identify than others, requiring increased vigilance from our trusted health professionals.
Around these diseases, the standard of care is often more stringent, and the effects of a misdiagnosis of cancer can be all the more devastating.
1. Breast Cancer
Breast cancer, normally a form of carcinoma that begins in the milk-carrying ducts, is the most common form of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, around 230,000 women and 2,300 men are diagnosed with cancers of the breast every year.
But breast biopsies are fraught with potential errors, and pathologists often miss cancers in the tissue samples they receive, or “detect” malignancies where there are none.
In 2015, an unprecedented coalition of researchers from Stanford, Dartmouth and the University of Washington tested the accuracy of pathologists by having them re-diagnose breast tissue that had already been studied. 48% of early tumors or pre-cancer warning signs were missed, while 13% of benign tissue samples were diagnosed with some form of malignancy.
In the real world, those mistakes would have led to unchecked metastasis or unneeded mastectomies and courses of radiation and chemo.
Follow the link to learn more about breast cancer misdiagnosis.
Cancers of the lymphatic system often mimic other conditions, and many patients report having tell-tale signs like swollen lymph nodes and chest rashes initially dismissed as allergies.
To confuse the issue, some benign pathologies closely resemble lymphoma. In 2013, a team of pathologists identified a non-cancerous disease that looked just like an aggressive lymphoma of the intestines. Describing the cases of 11 patients, 6 had already begun to receive chemotherapy before the mistake was caught.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is often referred to as a “young person’s disease,” because it’s most often diagnosed in people between 20 and 34. But many physicians continue to look for the malignancy only in older patients, under the mistaken assumption that all cancers become more likely as we age.
To find more information on lymphoma misdiagnosis and your rights as a patient, click here.
3. Lung Cancer
Properly identifying lung cancers is one of the most difficult tasks a radiologist can face. Many bacterial and fungal infections look almost identical to malignant tumors on an X-ray.
This problem cuts both ways: some patients with cancer will be inaccurately diagnosed with an infection, while infected patients can be misdiagnosed with lung cancer.
Lyme disease poses its own significant problems. In 2013, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered the stories of three men who had been mistakenly diagnosed with Lyme disease. One man was inappropriately treated for seven months until a physician discovered his symptoms were actually caused by lung cancer. Another patient took antibiotics for three years, until radiologists found a tumor in his pituitary gland that had grown too large to remove.
Learn more about misdiagnosed lung cancer and medical negligence claims here.
4. Ovarian Cancer
A national survey conducted by the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition found that out of 250 women battling the disease, over two-thirds were originally misdiagnosed.
The primary symptoms of ovarian cancer, abdominal pain and bloating, are often shrugged off as signs of irritable bowel syndrome or a urinary tract infection.
Some physicians even tell patients that their problems are mental, chalking the symptoms up to stress. But months or years later, many women learn that they’ve been battling ovarian cancer all along and now have limited options.
Follow the link to find more information on the legal rights of patients with misdiagnosed ovarian cancer.
5. Cervical Cancer
Pap smears are our best tool in identifying abnormal cell growth before it develops into cervical cancer. Since the test’s introduction in 1943, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved.
Unlike most tissue samples, pap smears are normally analyzed by cytotechnologists first. The samples are only sent on to a pathologist if the initial investigator discovers signs of abnormal cells. But reports suggest that up to 40% of Pap tests are read as false-negatives; while the samples indicate anomalous cell growth, analysts fail to notice the signs.
To learn more about your options after a cervical cancer misdiagnosis, click here.
6. Uterine Cancer
Cancers of the uterus almost always begin in the endometrium, the layer of cells lining the organ’s interior cavity. But as many experts, including the Journal of Clinical Pathology, have noted these common carcinomas can easily be mistaken for rare, aggressive sarcomas.
While both types of malignancy originate in the uterus, they require wildly different treatments. Sarcomas tend to remain local, and can be removed surgically, while carcinomas infiltrate surrounding tissue, and systemic approaches like chemotherapy may be warranted.
When misdiagnosed, inappropriate treatments can cause more suffering than the disease itself.
For more information on a uterine cancer misdiagnosis and the possibility of legal action, follow this link.
7. Skin Cancer & Melanoma
By far the most common form of cancer, skin diseases like melanoma are also some of the most likely to be missed. Primary care physicians routinely overlook common signs, including anomalous lesions, allowing cancers to progress freely.
After sending a survey to 271 dermatological specialists, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery found that a full 90% were treating patients whose malignancies had gone undiagnosed by a general practitioner.
While properly diagnosed melanoma has one of the highest cure rates, a malignant tumor can invade underlying skin layers and ultimately reach the blood stream or lymphatic system.
Learn how you can seek justice after a melanoma misdiagnosis, click here.
8. Pancreatic Cancer
In its early stages, pancreatic cancer causes few symptoms and is difficult to diagnose. Eventually, the malignancy produces debilitating effects, but these can be easily mistaken for numerous other conditions, including gallbladder disease.
As with any problem that leads to the misdiagnosis of cancer, the resemblance between a cancer and unrelated diseases can be a double-edged sword. Some patients suffering from gallbladder disease are mistakenly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and subjected to a battery of irrelevant tests.
The difficulties here are borne out in scientific research: in 2015, oncologist Douglas Swords MD reviewed 313 patients ultimately diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Almost one-third had been initially misdiagnosed, most commonly with gallbladder disease. Almost 40% of the misdiagnosed patients had their gallbladders unnecessarily removed.
To find out how you or a loved one can recover after a pancreatic cancer misdiagnosis, follow this link.
9. Liver Cancer
Most cases of liver cancer only present symptoms after they’ve metastasized, and those symptoms can be vague and linked to many other non-cancerous conditions. For these reasons, many pathologists can become “over-vigilant,” noticing malignancies where none exist.
Reviewing 50 years of autopsy studies, a researcher at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine estimated that 23% of patients diagnosed with liver cancer don’t actually have cancer at all. Many may actually suffer from hemangioma, a benign liver lesion.
Liver cancer itself can be extremely complicated. In many patients, cancers originating in other tissues ultimately reach the liver. If the malignancy’s true origin isn’t identified, patients may be forced to endure debilitating treatments that have little to no benefit.
10. Prostate Cancer
In 2014, scientists at Cambridge University made a startling discovery: half of all men diagnosed with prostate cancer may actually be cancer-free.
While that number is shocking, medical papers tend to overlook the real traumas that a cancer diagnosis can inflict. The prospect of lengthy cancer treatments and likely impotence can wreak untold damage on a patient’s overall well-being. Being told you don’t actually have cancer can be just as hard, as years of justified anxiety are thrown into question in an instant.
Because an estimated 80% of men ultimately develop the disease by the age of 80, pathologists may have become overzealous in identifying “abnormal cells” where none are present.
11. Bladder Cancer
Bladder cancer is often mistaken for a urinary tract infection, because both malignancies and UTI cause blood in urine.
By the same token, some cases of bladder cancer will be missed, with patient’s symptoms ascribed to a relatively innocuous UTI. Patients who don’t respond to antibiotics must be reevaluated, and all possible diagnoses should be investigated and ruled out.
More than almost any other cancer, bladder cancers require extreme vigilance. With a high recurrence rate, these diseases are also some of the most expensive to treat. Patients have found themselves filing for bankruptcy, even as they fight for their very lives.
12. Thyroid Cancer
Several studies have suggested that thyroid cancer diagnoses are on the rise world-wide. One explanation for the increase? The disease is being over-diagnosed.
In 2014, the New York Times found that “the thyroid cancer rate in the United States ha[d] more than doubled since 1994.” But this increase in “detection” hasn’t led to the decrease in survival rates that you’d expect. There’s only one logical conclusion: the tumors being identified aren’t cancer, and more often than not, they’re completely harmless.
Still, many patients may be receiving courses of hormones, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and even undergoing surgical procedures they simply don’t need.
13. Colon Cancer
Colon cancer is surprisingly treatable when detected early. Misdiagnoses of the disease are rare, but reports have surfaced of physicians outright dismissing the symptoms as anything from benign polyps and hemorrhoids to depression.
These callous mistakes may be uncommon, but with survival rates extremely low for late-stage cases, incredible watchfulness isn’t just desirable, it’s absolutely necessary.
To learn more about protecting your legal rights after a colon cancer misdiagnosis, click here.