As a national observance, breast cancer awareness month champions the importance of early detection as a way of saving lives. While proactive screening and a speedy diagnosis can greatly improve patients’ prognoses, there are, sadly, some patients who don’t benefit from the protocols and procedures put in place for their protection. Some patients have their mammograms performed or the results interpreted by incompetent technicians or their concerns brushed off by inattentive doctors. These patients may have a false sense of security – their test came back normal or their doctor reassured them that the lump or other irregularity they worried about is no cause for concern. By the time they find out that they have cancer, their best opportunity for beating it has already passed. It has progressed to a more advanced, aggressive stage, one that is harder to treat.
Delayed diagnoses of cancer can result in great pain and suffering for the patient and family, sometimes even causing the death of a patient who would have otherwise survived. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
What Happens When Cancer Goes Undiagnosed
Not every cancer patient who doctors fail to diagnose has undergone specific screening for the type of cancer. Sometimes, medical professionals have an unexpected opportunity to notice that something is wrong – and they miss that opportunity. It happened to a client of ours, a gentleman who had just reached his 50s and had a lot of life before him. Unbeknownst to him, he had developed early-stage, very treatable lung cancer (not breast cancer) in his mid-forties. He hadn’t yet begun experiencing symptoms when an injury landed him in the emergency room, where a chest X-ray showed the then small but distinct cancerous nodule. Doctors even noted the nodule in the patient’s chart, but they never told him it existed or conveyed the information to any of the patient’s other doctors for follow up care.
For five years after he should have been receiving treatment, our client went through his life unaware of the deadly disease he had. When he finally returned to the same hospital after experiencing shortness of breath and a cough that wouldn’t go away, he learned of the cancer for the first time. The once small nodule had grown into a large mass, and the disease had metastasized to his lymph nodes and brain. Five years earlier, his prognosis would have been good with proper treatment; now it was too late. He passed away, leaving behind a grieving family.
Delayed detection and failure to diagnose cases are among the most common instances of medical malpractice. Diagnostic errors affect one in 20 patients, healthcare improvement journal BMJ Quality & Safety reported – and when the missed diagnosis is cancer of any kind, any delay can be crucial.
Breast Cancer Survival Rates
“The most frequent reason for lawsuits against doctors is delayed detection of breast cancer,” the National Association of Science Writers reported. That’s a chilling fact. When detected early, the survival rates for breast cancer patients are excellent. At stage 0 and stage I, the five-year relative survival rate is 100 percent, the American Cancer Society reported. Breast cancer detected at stage II still leaves patients with a 93 percent survival rate five years later. Even when detected in stage III, 72 percent of breast cancer patients survive.
When breast cancer isn’t detected until stage IV, the survival rate drops to a dismal 22 percent. A delay in diagnosing breast cancer can be deadly. It means patients aren’t getting the potentially life-saving treatments they need when they need them. Instead, they are learning, too late, that they had a form of cancer that they probably could have survived but that now is statistically likely to kill them.
Your Role in Your Healthcare
As breast cancer awareness month winds down, let’s take time to develop some real awareness, to absorb information that goes beyond pink ribbons and catchy slogans. Knowing what kind of cancer screening you need is only one part of the puzzle (though not a simple part, since organizations like United States Preventive Services Task Force give different recommendations than the American Cancer Society and Mayo Clinic). You also need to be truly informed and involved in your own healthcare decisions.
Patients trust their doctors. When a medical professional says that the test shows no signs of cancer or that the abnormality is nothing to worry about, patients often believe the physician, no questions asked. There’s no way for patients to know whether their doctor deserves their trust or whether he or she is brushing off their legitimate concerns. That’s why it’s essential that patients deal with doctors who answer their questions, consider their concerns thoroughly, and explain themselves clearly. If the doctor tells you that you don’t need a mammogram or that your concerns about breast cancer are unwarranted, ask why. If you are ever concerned that your doctor isn’t providing you the care you deserve or addressing your concerns adequately, feel free to seek a second opinion.
Being informed and involved in your healthcare decisions – being your own advocate – is the only way patients can try to prevent delayed detections in their own lives. This October and all year long, don’t just be aware that breast cancer exists – be aware of your risks and what you can do to minimize them through early detection.