Missed or Delayed Cancer Diagnosis

Missed or Delayed Cancer Diagnosis

Just under two million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer and more than 600,000 people will die of cancer each year. In fact, nearly 10 percent of Americans are diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime.

Cancer is a progressive disease with a prognosis that worsens significantly the later it is diagnosed. Therefore, early detection is the key to cure or long-term survival. The primary means of early diagnosis are screening and proper physician symptom evaluation.

While certain cancers, like some forms of skin cancer, are visually identifiable, others can grow undetected for 10 years or more because they have no symptoms or very subtle symptoms in their early stages. The latter is why screening tests are so important. Undergoing routine screening, however, is not foolproof. There are occasions when early indications of cancer are missed on imaging studies, blood work or pathology by the physicians reviewing, interpreting or studying same. Also, many screening tests, such as those for breast and colon cancer, are only conducted for individuals in defined age groups. Therefore, many younger adults are not screened. But with 12% of colorectal cancer cases occurring in younger adults and 7% of breast cancers occurring in women under 40, there is risk at every age and providers should not avoid screening tests for patients based only on a patient’s age.

For proper early diagnosis, medical providers must also listen to patient reports of symptoms and include cancer, when appropriate, in the differential diagnosis. Summarily dismissing cancer as a source, can not only be detrimental to the patient, but fatal. One study of 400 doctors found that they believed less than 10% of patients were misdiagnosed, but research indicated that misdiagnosis was as high as 28%.  This is significant because patients grappling with undiagnosed symptoms are relying on their provider to help them get to the source. Arriving at that correct diagnosis takes a physician’s time, effort, the right testing, and not dismissing a patient’s concerns. (Women are particularly subject to misdiagnosis based on a number of factors, including underrepresentation in clinical research and unconscious bias.)

As a patient, if you suspect cancer consider taking the following steps:

  • Work with a primary care provider you trust and that listens to you
  • Know and share your family medical history
  • Seek care as soon as you develop any unexplained or troubling symptoms
  • If in doubt about a diagnosis, get a second opinion

We are here to help. If you have been the victim of a missed or delayed cancer diagnosis, contact us.

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