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.
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. Here we have highlighted the most commonly misdiagnosed cancers.
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.
In the real world, those mistakes would have led to unchecked metastasis or unneeded mastectomies and courses of radiation and chemo.
Cancers of the lymphatic system often mimic other conditions, and many patients report having telltale 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By far the most common form of malignancy, skin cancers like melanoma or basal cell carcinoma are rarely misdiagnosed. That’s not to say, however, that every skin cancer patient receives the proper diagnosis at first. Primary care physicians routinely overlook common signs, including anomalous lesions, allowing cancers to progress freely.
While properly diagnosed skin cancer has one of the highest cure rates, a malignant tumor can invade underlying skin layers and lead to widespread tissue damage.
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 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.
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.
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.
Bladder cancer is often mistaken for a urinary tract infection (UTI), 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.
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.
Leukemia, one of the most common blood cancers in children and adults, can easily be mistaken for other medical conditions, from hemophilia to the flu. While misdiagnosis is relatively rare, the consequences of an inaccurate diagnosis can be devastating. We’ve heard from numerous patients who were shuttled between multiple specialists, receiving incorrect results at every step.
With so many different types of cancer and ways that these may be misdiagnosed, it is important to work with a legal professional who has experience with these specific cases. At Marciano & MacAvoy, P.C. we understand what is at stake and know how to build effective, compelling cases on behalf of our clients and their families.