Lymphoma Misdiagnosis: Can I File A Lawsuit?

Lymphoma Misdiagnosis Infographic

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Lymphoma is a terrifying example of an often-overlooked truth: that which is meant to defend us can also harm. Through a senseless trick of genetic mutation, the body’s immune system becomes a source of physical pain and emotional anguish. But current medical science provides patients diagnosed with this terrible disease more hope now than ever before. In 1960, 60% of the people diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma would die after five years. Today, only around 12% will. Learning to catch lymphoma early, and creating exacting standards of treatment, has been essential in saving those lives. But just like the immune system, medical science can turn on patients in a second. Every year, an estimated 464,000 Americans will be misdiagnosed with cancer.

Misdiagnosed Lymphoma

Gravestone GraphicA number of these people will be told they have lymphoma, often by the doctors they trust to make the right call. They’ll begin preparing for treatments, most of which can be just as agonizing as the disease’s own effects. But they don’t have cancer, and those treatments, likely chemotherapy or radiotherapy, will have no effect on the actual underlying cause of their symptoms.

At the same time, and sometimes in the hospital room next door, other patients are being told they have one of lymphoma’s many mimics. But in fact, a malignancy has already taken hold of one of their lymph nodes and begun to spread. Only a handful of these misdiagnosed patients will later learn that their cancer was allowed to metastasize.

For many, the correct diagnosis will come too late. Betrayed by trusted medical professionals, some will turn to legal action and file a medical malpractice lawsuit. While a lawsuit won’t take back the months or years lost to a misdiagnosis, it may be the first step toward future recovery for both patients and loved ones.

Medical Negligence: The Root Of Misdiagnosis

But not every lymphoma misdiagnosis is caused by medical malpractice, and not every misdiagnosed patient will have an appropriate basis for legal action.

“Standard Of Care” & Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

The vast majority of viable malpractice claims will be based on a “standard of care.” In essence, there’s a right way to diagnose cancer and there’s a wrong way.

This “standard” has been developed over decades of scientific research and clinical experience. It will continue to evolve as we learn more about the causes of lymphoma and develop new ways to fight the disease.

Which might make it sound like a standard of care is up for interpretation, that it’s a subjective matter. For an objective measure, courts ask:

What would a competent, skilled medical professional with similar education and experience have done in the same situation?

With this baseline, we can gauge whether a physician’s actions or inactions violated the medically-accepted standard of care. If those deviations harmed a patient, the doctor can be held accountable in a court of law.

What We Can Expect From Medical Professionals

Physicians, radiologists and pathologists are tasked with upholding this “standard of care.” As patients, we expect this kind of considered care implicitly. Our expectations are simple, and come down to basic ethical principles:

  • consider all the evidence
  • investigate every possibility
  • order new tests to rule-out similar conditions
  • address my concerns thoroughly
  • don’t dismiss my symptoms

All we ask is to be taken seriously. After all, a lymphoma diagnosis can be a matter of life or death.

Surviving Lymphoma

Of the numerous types of cancer, lymphoma’s survival rates are surprisingly hopeful. For a patient diagnosed between 2004 and 2010, the current five-year estimates are:

Non-Hodgkin’s72%
Hodgkin’s88%

But as we’re all aware, these survival rates take into account a wide range of treatment methods. Patients who are treated improperly, or for non-existent conditions, are far more likely to face a poor prognosis than those numbers would suggest. People who have been misdiagnosed with lymphoma can be subjected to months, even years, of agonizing treatments like chemo or radiotherapy.

For more information on Lymphoma treatments and survival rates, visit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Why Is Lymphoma Misdiagnosed?

Too often, physicians fail to approach possible cancers from a comprehensive standpoint. Stories of warning signs being “explained away” as the effects of menopause, stress or a simple infection abound. Some doctors will even disregard swollen lymph nodes, even in the presence of other common lymphoma symptoms.

Symptoms Of Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is far more common than Hodgkin’s disease, but both cause a similar set of symptoms.

Unfortunately, many of these early signs can also be caused by other conditions; in medical parlance, they’re “non-specific.” But this only means that doctors and pathologists must remain vigilant, taking every potential sign into account before making a diagnosis.

Lymphoma Symptoms Commonly Misdiagnosed Conditions
  • A painless swelling under the arm, in the neck or groin that doesn’t go away
  • Waking up with a “hangover,” even though you didn’t drink last night
  • Excessive sweating, especially at night
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Itches, especially in the lower body
  • Unexplained pain (swollen lymph nodes can “invade” the territory reserved for nerves, triggering pain or numbness)
  • Flu
  • Infection
  • Autoimmune disorders, like HIV or rheumatoid arthritis
  • A bad reaction to a pharmaceutical drug
  • Sarcoidosis, an unexplained condition that causes organ inflammation and granulomas

In 2013, an international team of researchers identified a rare disease that they believe many doctors are misdiagnosing as Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The condition, indolent clonal T-cell proliferations, could be “easily mistaken for lymphoma” according to co-author Dennis Weisenburger, M.D.

Hodgkin’s vs. Non-Hodgkin’s: Biopsy Is The Gold Standard

Reed-Sternberg cellsTo properly diagnose the disease, doctors must rely on biopsies. After small samples of a swollen lymph node are removed, pathologists scrutinize the cells under a microscope. They’re trying to figure out which type of lymphocyte (a sub-set of white blood cells) is being affected.

If particular abnormal cells called Reed-Sternberg cells are present in the sample, the patient will be diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. If no Reed-Sternberg cells are found, the lymphoma is classified as Non-Hodgkin’s.

Other diagnostics, like MRI and blood tests, can help physicians determine the stage of a lymphoma and begin developing a treatment plan. But these additional tests are rarely enough to support an accurate diagnosis. Patients who were diagnosed with lymphoma based solely on the word of a radiologist may be the unknowing victims of medical negligence.

Misdiagnosed Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

The term “Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma” actually covers more than 30 different types of cancer. Mantle cell lymphomas, B-cell lymphomas, follicular lymphomas: each type functions differently and the proper course of treatment is largely dictated by which specific cells of the immune system have become malignant.

So diagnosing lymphoma isn’t as simple as taking a biopsy and dropping the results into one of two buckets: non-Hodgkin’s or Hodgkin’s. Obviously, distinguishing between over 30 forms of disease takes extraordinary expertise and care.

But how could we expect anything else when confusing mantle cell lymphoma for B-cell can entail a pointless stem cell transplant?

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