Failure to Diagnose Cancer

Dec 19, 2007 — by Gary Zucker

We at Gary A. Zucker & Associates, P.C. handle many types of cancer cases. Cancer includes any of more than 100 diseases characterized by excessive, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that invade and destroy other tissues. Survival rates depend on the type of cancer and the timeliness of diagnosis. Many, but not all, cancers have a high cure rate when diagnosed early and a very low cure rate when diagnosed late. Unfortunately, some cancers have a low cure rate even when detected at the earliest possible time. Examples of cancers that are highly curable when caught and treated early and rarely curable when the diagnosis or proper treatment is delayed are melanoma, colon cancer, bladder cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, thyroid cancer, and testicular cancer.

Some cancers, such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, and colon cancer, can be detected before the patient experiences any symptoms by performing routine screenings, such as mammograms, pap smears, HPV tests, and colonoscopies. In evaluating cases such as these, we review the medical records to determine if the patient was advised to have appropriate screening tests performed, whether the tests were performed properly, and whether the results of the tests were correctly interpreted. It is important to consider the individual patient when determining when and how often these routine tests must be done. For example, certain patients are at increased risk of developing colon cancer, including patients who suffer from ulcerative colitis or have a family history of colon cancer, or have a history of polyps. Therefore, those patients must have more frequent colonoscopies.

Although the majority of cancers are not tested for routinely, certain symptoms should cause a physician to have a high index of suspicion for the presence of cancer. When a patient presents with non-specific symptoms, doctors are trained to formulate a differential diagnosis by first ruling out any condition that could potentially pose an immediate threat to the patients life and then, by process of elimination, identify the etiology (cause) of the patients symptoms.

Examples of cases we have handled include misread mammograms and x-rays, failure to biopsy a suspicious lesion for melanoma, failure to thoroughly evaluate the colon and perform a sufficient number of biopsies during a colonoscopy, failure to inspect the bladder and ureters when investigating the cause of hematuria (blood in urine), taking inadequate tissue samples for biopsies to rule out laryngeal cancer, failure to properly read a PAP smear, and causing severe burns due to excessive radiation.

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