Many people understand the serious implications of a cancer misdiagnosis: months, potentially even years of agony and unnecessary treatment. Undoubtedly, this takes a toll on mental and physical health. But most people aren’t aware of how common this medical error truly is. Cancer
misdiagnosis occurs upwards of 30% of the time, with that figure soaring to 44% of the time for more rare forms of cancer. The reasons for this failure to diagnose (or the reverse, a misdiagnosis of cancer when none exists) varies, but usually involve a medical professional misinterpreting diagnostic testing. For example, there may appear to be a cancerous tumor on an X-ray that turns out to be benign, or a cancer pathologist may misclassify a tissue sample in a laboratory to be malignant when it is not.
Breast cancer is the most commonly misdiagnosed cancer. Benign tissue in the breasts can be mistaken for cancerous tissue. With so much public awareness about breast cancer, doctors unfortunately can overdiagnose. In fact, a recent study showed that the increase in screening
“only marginally reduced the rate at which women present with advanced cancer.” Part of the reason is because cancer misdiagnosis skews the stats unfavorably — there are more cancer diagnoses but many of them are to healthy patients.
Another category of cancer misdiagnosis is “misclassified cancer.” This term refers to a misdiagnosis where a patient is diagnosed with the wrong type of cancer, i.e. they do have cancer but a different type than that of which is diagnosed. This sounds less dramatic than the previous type of misdiagnosis, but it can still lead to grave results because different types of cancers necessitate distinct treatment modalities.
Usually, a misclassified cancer occurs when the doctor confuses cancers common to the same part of the body. For example, rectal cancer is often misclassified as colon cancer. This is unsurprising because symptoms are often similar. Both rectal cancer and colon cancer cause a patient to have abdominal pain, blood in the stool and a change in bowel habits. Misclassified cancer may not be as common as misdiagnosed cancer (as in breast cancer), but it’s essential to be aware of the risks. A scientific study from 2011 investigating this issue found that 82% of misclassified colon cancer deaths were actually rectal cancer deaths. As a patient, it’s important to get a second and even third opinion.
Many doctors are overworked, stressed out, and sleep deprived, which can cause them to make human errors when interpreting lab results, diagnostic imaging, and patient symptoms. If a patient is experiencing abnormalities with their health, seeing multiple physicians for a true diagnosis can significantly reduce the risk of moving forward with an unsuitable treatment plan. It’s also a good idea to empower yourself with knowledge about your disease. If you are diagnosed with one form of cancer by the first doctor you see, educate yourself about that type of cancer and use your judgment to interpret whether you think the doctor’s decision is likely to be accurate. You are your own best doctor after all, since only you are the one experiencing the symptoms. If you have any questions, have a dialogue with your doctor or pharmacist. See if they think it’s a good idea to get a second opinion, and don’t be afraid to speak up with questions about something they said. To limit the chance of a cancer misdiagnosis, you have to become your own health advocate.
This article was originally written by Mr.Cal Cook. Cal investigates and writes about consumer-focused topics including finance, scams and safety. His passion lies in exposing fraud across all industries to protect consumers.