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Your guide to breast cancer misdiagnosis

Breast cancer ribbon

Diagnosing breast cancer needs more than one test

Delay in referring a patient who may have breast cancer to a specialist can have serious consequences for their recovery and can even be fatal.

Every year, thousands of breast cancer cases are routinely missed by screening so treatments can come too late to treat advanced stage tumours effectively.

While NHS breast cancer screening involves mammograms being offered every three years to woman aged 47 to 73, no one test by itself  can detect or conclusively identify the presence of a malignant breast cancer. Completing a number of different tests is crucial to prevent breast cancer misdiagnosis and eliminate false positive readings.

If you noticed any unusual changes to the breast, your GP should have immediately arranged for further clinical tests and there are strict guidelines in place for ensuring referral to a specialist.

Further unnecessary suffering

A delay or misdiagnosis of breast cancer can occur simply because of carelessness, inexperience, or over-stretched surgeries and laboratory staff. 

If a delay has allowed breast cancer to grow and metastasize, there could major complications in subsequent treatments, which may  cause further  suffering and  reduce life-expectancy.

Despite considerable advances in knowledge and treatment techniques, the best possible outcome for extending a patient’s life is:

  • An early diagnosis
  • The correct tests and
  • The correct treatment

It is the responsibility of a doctor, specialist or other clinicians involved in your diagnosis to interpret the symptoms correctly and ensure the right treatment is implemented.

As a patient, you are owed a ‘duty of care’ and if at any stage a mistake was made in your diagnosis, the wrong course of treatment was administered or the standard of care fell below expectation, then you may have a  claim for medical  negligence.

Reaching a decision to make a civil claim for medical  negligence is never easy and our team of both male and female lawyers know very well that you will expect to receive the closest attention, special understanding and expert guidance to help you succeed in making your case.

Your Legal Friend has many years experience in successfully resolving many different types of clinical negligence cases.  Our specialist knowledge of both legal and medical issues, together with a sensitive awareness of how everyone involved is affected, means we can help you:

  • Find out the reason why something went wrong with a diagnosis, treatment or procedure
  • Obtain  compensation for the injury or harm caused.

Breast cancer facts and figures

  • 2 million women every year in the UK undergo an X-ray scan to detect breast cancer.               (NHS UK)
  • 50,000 people are diagnosed each year with breast cancer, the most common form of cancer in the UK.               (NHS UK)
  • Between three and four breast cancers per 1,000 women screened are missed.               (US data Study, Dec 2014)
  • Around 2,400 cases a year are being missed by NHS screening.               (US data study estimate, Dec 2014)
  • One in five of all clinical negligence claims brought against MPS doctors involve cancer.               (Medical Protection Society - MPS)
  • Misdiagnosis is the common complaint in 80% of claims.               (Medical Protection Society - MPS)  

Common risk factors

A doctor should carefully compile your medical profile by normally asking questions directly addressing a number of risk factors known to be related to breast cancer.              

Questions relating to the most common causes of breast cancer are:

Age

  • Are you aged over 50?
  • Have you gone through the menopause?

The risk of developing breast cancer increases as you get older. There is also a greater risk of a false negative result from a mammogram.

Family History:

  • Is there a history of breast cancer with members of your family or close relatives?

Most cases of breast cancer are not hereditary but there are specific genes which can be passed down from parent to child.

Previous Breast Cancer Diagnosis:

  • Have you previously been diagnosed with breast cancer?

As a result of changes within the cells, there is a high risk of cancer returning, either in the same, or opposite breast.

Oestrogen Exposure:

  • Did your periods start at a younger age?
  • Did your menopause start at a later age?

Exposure to oestrogen over a longer period of time could cause breast cancer cells to develop, especially if hormone levels were high.

Radiation:

  • Have you undergone a series of X-ray or CT scans?

Exposure to radiation, such as targeted radiotherapy, may increase the risk of developing cancer.

When symptoms of breast cancer are suspected

The early diagnosis of suspected breast cancer symptoms requires an urgent transferral to a specialist. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) have set out strict guidelines for GPs to follow to ensure an appropriate transferral takes place.

According to the NICE guidelines, a doctor should transfer you to a specialist if you have:

Breast

  • Discovered a solid lump or an area of thickened tissue in the breast
  • If you are younger than 30 and have a lump increasing in size
  • If you are younger than 30 and have a lump along with a family history of cancer
  • Dimpling on the skin of the breast.

Nipple

  • Noticed a recent change in the shape or appearance of the nipple
  • A rash on or around your nipple
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Blood from the nipple.

Armpit

  • A lump or swelling in the armpit
  • Pain in the breast or armpit.

Reasons for misdiagnosis

The most common reasons for a delay or misdiagnosis of breast cancer are:

  • Failure of GP to refer a patient for further tests on symptoms, such as a lump in the breast or underarm
  • Failure to carry out further tests when a lump is found, such as a scan or biopsy
  • Failure to read the results of a test correctly - a negative result is given instead of a positive result.

Different types of tests

No one test for breast cancer should be considered conclusive. A number of extensive tests are crucial in providing an accurate diagnosis and prevent a misdiagnosis.

Important tests include:

Mammogram – used to produce an x-ray of the breasts and detect any lumps or abnormalities.

However, if you are aged under 35, the breast tissue is denser and may also require an ultrasound scan.

Ultrasound  Scan - uses high frequency sound waves to produce an interior image of image of the breast to determine if the lump is potentially cancerous.

Biopsy- a sample of tissue cells is removed from your breast for more rigorous analysis, if mammogram or ultrasound tests indicate that the lump in your breast could potentially be cancerous.

If a diagnosis of breast cancer is confirmed

Further tests will be needed to indicate the stage the cancer has reached and the appropriate course of treatment. These will include a CT scan, chest x-rays, hormone receptor tests, and a bone scan for very advanced-stage cancers.

Cancer misdiagnosis – do I have grounds for a claim?

A delay in the diagnosis of breast cancer can allow the cancer to grow  and spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones. There can be severe implications for the chances of recovery and life expectancy.

To bring a successful clinical negligence claim, it is necessary to prove:

  • The healthcare treatment received fell below a generally accepted standard to be expected from a clinician with his or her qualifications and specialisations.

When applied to negligence in dealing with breast cancer, it is necessary to show:

  • Your GP failed to recognise the symptoms of breast cancer or
  • A delay was caused in starting treatment, by failing to promptly transferr you to a specialist
  • A failure to arrange for further vital diagnostic tests.

How Your Legal Friend can help you

As experienced clinical negligence specialists, we know that you will want to find out why your GP or doctor failed you or a family member in their duty to provide the expected standard of care and treatment in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

Our task is to ensure your voice is heard and your case made in order to bring the hospital, health trust or a medical practitioner to account for the harm and suffering caused.

Your Legal Friend is committed to ensuring victims of clinical negligence obtain answers and receive appropriate compensation so that their future medical treatment and care needs are properly met.