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Delay/Failure to Diagnose Cancer

Cancer is a combination of diseases with many different causes and different outcomes. A cancer can occur anywhere in the body as a result of the abnormal proliferation of cancerous cells, which depending on their type, can either be cured or they will lead to the death of the patient. The key to any type of cancer is early diagnosis and treatment. Also, the treatment of different types of cancer has changed dramatically over the past 10-20 years, which has greatly changed both the survivability of patients with some types of cancer, such as breast cancer and certain types of lung cancer. The ability to perform diagnostic tests that can lead to earlier diagnosis, such as colon cancer, has also increased the overall survivability of patients. Some cancers, such as some lung cancers, may be the result of external causes in the environment (cigarette smoke).

Most cancers have no specific outside cause or trigger, although many cancers have a genetic predisposition that increases the likelihood that children or siblings may develop the same cancers. Since doctors are not the cause of a cancer that can develop in a patient, the focus of any medical malpractice or negligence claim involving a patient with cancer is focused on any delay in the diagnosis of the cancer. Once diagnosed, most cancers are then properly treated, and the outcome is then a result of the type of cancer and the stage at diagnosis. Cancers that are treated at a lower stage might have a higher rate of survival, whereas certain cancers (such as ovarian or pancreatic) usually have a poor survival rate regardless of when they are diagnosed. For the majority of cancers, the key to proving a medical malpractice claim is evidence that the cancer could and should have been diagnosed at an earlier stage. In some cases, the focus may be on the treatment decisions after diagnosis that may not comply with the advances of modern treatment.

The most important aspect of any medical malpractice or negligence case involving the failure to timely diagnose cancer involves the type of cancer. It is not enough that the physician ignored certain symptoms or failed to properly interpret or follow up on a diagnostic test, such as an x-ray, because recovery requires evidence that an earlier diagnosis would had led to a significantly different and improved outcome. Since some cancers, such as pancreatic, ovarian, or “small cell” lung cancers, have very poor outcomes regardless of when they are diagnosed, medical malpractice claims involving these types of cancer cannot prove that earlier diagnosis would have led to an improved outcome. Ironically, the improvement in treatment in some cancers, like breast cancer, has resulted in better outcomes even for cancers diagnosed at later stages of the disease. As a result, breast cancer cases may be difficult to prove any significant difference in outcome, even when there was negligence which allowed the cancer to progress from a lower stage to a higher stage.

This resource page is provided by Dr. Bruce Fagel for your information. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation.