No words can shake the human spirit more profoundly than, “you have cancer.” Many patients, to say nothing of their loved ones, are immediately thrown into a tail-spin. But some malignant tumors can be excised; a lot of them respond well to treatments like chemo and radiotherapy. For hundreds of thousands of people, there’s hope.
Pancreatic cancer is different. According to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research, the disease is “still considered largely incurable,” despite recent advances in medical science. No matter the stage, the one-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer climbs no higher than 20%. The five-year survival rate is 6%. For an estimated 40,500 patients every year, the words “you have pancreatic cancer” are a death sentence.
That was the result of Dr. Douglas Swords’ study, which looked at the rate of misdiagnosis among patients in Salt Lake City. Swords, a surgery resident at the University of Utah, reviewed the records of 313 pancreatic cancer patients, finding that a staggering 31.3% had received incorrect diagnoses.
Apparently, some of these patients had even received more than one wrong diagnosis. While 98 total patients had been misdiagnosed, Swords reported 119 diagnoses other than pancreatic cancer.
Even more immediate ramifications of a misdiagnosis were also observed. For example, 15 out of the 38 patients who were misdiagnosed with gallbladder disease underwent a cholecystectomy, a completely unnecessary surgery to remove the gallbladder.
In his study, Swords found that symptoms and age had a huge impact on how likely a patient was to be misdiagnosed.
Pancreatic cancer is largely tied to age, and many sources report that age is the primary risk factor for developing the disease. That’s certainly true; more than 97% of patients are diagnosed after reaching the age of 55. Nearly 30% are diagnosed between the ages of 75 and 84, and 72 is the median age at which patients are diagnosed, according to statistics maintained by Pancreatic Cancer Action.
But at least in Swords’ report, this intimate connection between age and pancreatic cancer seemed to “blind” diagnosing physicians to even the possibility that a younger patient could have the disease. Misdiagnosed patients were, on average, five years younger than those patients who were accurately diagnosed from the start.
Symptoms played another huge role in misdiagnosis. Patients who had been misdiagnosed were more likely to have presented with:
Of course, symptoms come in handy for diagnostic purposes. And true to form, patients who were misdiagnosed rarely exhibited jaundice, a classic indicator of pancreatic cancer. It’s likely, then, that only a specific combination of symptoms tipped doctors off to the disease’s presence, while symptoms in isolation, no matter how common among people with pancreatic cancer, flew under the radar.
But the moment of diagnosis can be just as terrifying as the road ahead. Especially when that moment has come too late, when a tumor has already progressed to Stage IV and begun strangling the liver or lungs.
Given the terrible nature of pancreatic cancer, it’s almost perverse how frequently the condition is misdiagnosed. A recent study found that nearly one in three patients with a pancreas tumor were first told they’re symptoms arose from a benign condition. That’s 16,320 people every year, left to suffer from debilitating symptoms and prescribed ineffective drugs.
Some of these patients are the victims of medical negligence, although few know it. Pancreatic cancer makes it hard to know; the disease rarely presents symptoms until having metastasized beyond the point of surgery. But misdiagnoses shouldn’t be ignored.
Every cancer misdiagnosis lawsuit comes down to a basic ethical consideration: there’s a right method for catching the disease and a wrong method. We should be able to expect that our doctors, along with the imaging technicians and pathologists behind the scenes, are well-versed in the right method and stick with it for every patient. In matters of law, we call this correct method the “standard of care.” When medical professionals deviate from the standard of care, harming a patient, they can be held liable for medical negligence.
Since cancer is such a complex, and ever-changing, area of research, our Philadelphia cancer malpractice lawyers rely on expert opinions to define an appropriate standard of care in each case.
However, there are several fundamental concerns any medical professional should mind; every doctor owes their patients that much:
Time after time, we see these principles violated. When ethical lapses cause real harm, we believe no patient or family should be left without the support a medical malpractice lawsuit can bring.
Misdiagnoses rates are so high for pancreatic cancer because its symptoms, when they appear, are “nonspecific” and easily confused with benign conditions.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer:
What They’re Mistaken for:
Physicians have a wealth of diagnostic techniques at their disposal; imaging and blood tests are crucial in ruling out possible diagnoses and getting to the core of a patient’s illness. Were you afforded that care, or were your early warning signs chalked up to a benign condition? In many doctors’ minds, benign simply means “easier to treat.”
While the field of medicine has become increasingly specialized over the decades, doctors are still tasked with treating the whole person. This means a holistic approach is key; physicians should evaluate the totality of their patients’ activities and environment, rather than rely on a single CT scan or ultrasound. It turns out this integrated method can be highly effective in distinguishing between a malignant tumor and something like gallbladder disease.
Certain risk factors greatly increase the likelihood of developing pancreatic cancer:
Pancreatic cancer misdiagnoses seem to be most likely for young patients, since many doctors think of cancer only as an “old person’s disease.”
Why should you take legal action? Because you or your loved one deserved better care. Because families need to know the truth, before it’s too late. Because crippling pain and emotional trauma must be taken seriously. Every month lost to an ineffective treatment is a lifetime of agony for patients and their families. Every day spent worrying about tomorrow is a stolen opportunity to live in the present.