Melanoma Misdiagnosis: Could It Be Medical Negligence?

While melanoma, the rarest type of skin cancer, is shockingly aggressive, it’s also one of the only malignancies to make its presence known. Arising from abnormal growth in the skin’s melanocytes, melanoma appears first on the surface of a patient’s body. Logically, the disease’s very characteristics would seem to make it a perfect candidate for accurate diagnosis.

But that’s not true. Every year, unusual moles are dismissed as perfectly “normal” and biopsies of abnormal tissue are botched. Meanwhile, patients and their families are left in the dark, suffering from ineffective treatments or unaware of the malignant disease growing just below the surface.

Misdiagnosing Melanoma & Other Skin Cancers

New cases of melanoma are dwarfed by those of other cancers, including non-melanoma basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas of the skin. In 2015, an estimated:


people will be diagnosed with invasive melanoma

5.4 million

people will be diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers


people will be diagnosed with lung cancer

But statistics reveal an opposite trend for melanoma misdiagnoses. Reviewing insurance claims between 1995 and 1997, The Doctors Company found that 11% of medical malpractice claims involved misdiagnosed melanoma. Further analysis demonstrated that this troubling tendency has only increased: between 1998 and 2001, a staggering 16% of the malpractice insurer’s claims related to melanoma.

In many cases, a patient’s symptoms are confused for another condition:

Melanoma Symptoms Conditions It’s Mistaken For
  • Large brown spot with dark freckles
  • Changes in color, texture or size of a pre-existing mole
  • Irregularly-shaped lesions; can be blue, white, red, black or a mixture of colors
  • Darkly-colored lesions on the palms, fingers, soles of feet or toes
  • Lesions on the inside of mouth, nose, anus or vagina
  • Blue nevus: a type of benign mole outlined starkly in blue
  • Liver spots: dark patches of skin that often resemble moles; liver spots are usually benign but infrequently turn into superficial melanoma

When Is A Skin Cancer Misdiagnosis Medical Malpractice?

When a medical professional deviated from their standard of care, and that oversight led to harm.

Medicine is no different from any other profession: there’s a correct method for diagnosing cancer and an incorrect method.

In a civil lawsuit, that correct method is known as a “standard of care,” and our lawyers will turn to an expert in skin cancer to define it. After explaining the standard of care that should have been followed in your own case, we’ll ask whether or not your doctors violated the standard. If they did, it’s quite possible that you’ll be able to pursue compensation in a medical malpractice claim.

Obvious steps, like following up on a possible diagnoses with additional tests, are always included in a physician’s standard of care. So are listening carefully to all of your symptoms and pursuing multiple possible diagnoses before settling on one. But since cancer is so complex, the standard of care will depend on whether you were inaccurately diagnosed with melanoma, basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma.

When Negligence Shortens A Life

In some cases, medical negligence is staggeringly blatant.

General practitioners, and even dermatologists, have been held accountable for chalking up troubling moles to routine inflammation after an initial screening. But remember that misdiagnosis always cuts two ways: numerous patients undergo surgery every year for “skin cancers” they don’t actually have.

Others suffer needless and agonizing courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, along with sickening drugs like interferon and interleukin akin to torture.

For other patients, malpractice occurs “behind the scenes,” far away in the bowels of a large clinical laboratory. Here, pathologists can be treated more like call center workers, spurred to review dozens of slides in shorter amounts of time. Tragically, a moment’s inattention can mean years of unwarranted pain and suffering for a patient and their loved ones.

Many benign conditions can only be differentiated from malignant skin cancers under high magnifications. They feature similar cellular “architectures,” and look identical under a low magnification. But most biopsied tissues are sent off for inspection without adequate instruction. Pathologists rely on thorough patient information; it’s how they know where to look and what to look for. Turns out they’re rarely supplied with these crucial details.

Even experienced dermatopathologists disagree on diagnoses more often than not. A panel of 11 expert dermatologists convened by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania agreed on the diagnosis of a tumor only 35% of the time. For the 37 patients examined in that trial, turning to a medical professional was less effective than flipping a coin.

The Trauma Of Misdiagnosis: More Than Skin-Deep

A melanoma misdiagnosis is particularly devastating since the cancer can be effectively treated when caught early. According to Cancer.Net‘s latest figures, the 5 year survival rates for malignant melanoma drop drastically depending on how far the disease has spread:

region of origin98%
close lymph node63%
other part of body16%

That change is too devastating for diagnosis to be left up to chance. We believe patients deserve better care.

I Was Misdiagnosed. What’s Next?

The experienced medical malpractice attorneys at Marciano & MacAvoy offer free consultations, and there’s no better way to learn more about your legal options.

Whether you were inaccurately diagnosed with skin cancer, or a physician mistakenly diagnosed you with a benign condition, our lawyers can help. Surviving loved ones may be entitled to pursue a wrongful death claim.

Just call us today or fill out our online contact form for more information.

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