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Your guide to smears, scans, or biopsies

Doctor preparing a smear test- smears, scans or biopsies

According to Cancer UK, there are more than 200 types of cancer ranging from the more common breast, bowel, lung and prostate cancers to the rare types of tumour and children’s cancers.

The use of smears, scan and biopsies is vital to the early detection and treatment of cancer, especially female cervical cancer involving the lower part of the womb.

If you or a loved one has received a misdiagnosis for cancer caused by a failure, delay or misreading of the results of a smear, scan or biopsy, the consequences can be devastating.

Misdiagnosis of a cancer... can lead to unnecessary and painful interventions such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery for the wrong condition while the actual cause of the symptoms is left undetected and untreated.

Failure to detect a cancer...  means a crucial opportunity to catch and treat the disease early can be lost. In some cases, the spread of an undetected cancer could lead to major complications in subsequent treatments, which may be fatal 

Responsibility to interpret, diagnose and act...

Your GP/doctor, specialist or other clinician has a responsibility to:

  • Correctly interpret test results from a pap smear, image scan or biopsy (tissue sample)
  • Diagnose symptoms to ensure the right type of cancer is identified and
  • Put appropriate treatment immediately into action.

You may have a strong claim for clinical negligence if the standard of appropriate care fell below expectation due to:

  • Misinterpretation of scans, smear slides or biopsies
  • Failure to realise the importance of your complaints
  • Delayed referral for further tests
  • Missed, delayed or misdiagnosis of cancer type, stage or other complications
  • Lost or misplaced medical records.

Trying to come to terms with how a ‘standard’ clinical procedure failed is not always easy and finding out the reasons why this happened can sometimes be complicated.

Your Legal Friend has many years of experience in successfully resolving all types of clinical negligence cases involving cancer.  Our specialist knowledge of both legal and medical issues, together with an awareness and understanding of how everyone involved is affected, can help you:

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

Facts and figures...

  • Cervical cancer is the twelfth most common cancer in women in the UK and the third most common gynaecological cancer.
  • Over three-quarters of all new cases of cervical cancer cases are diagnosed in women aged 25-64.
  • Cervical cancer incidence in Great Britain decreased by nearly half between the late 1980s and the early 2000s.
  • 63% of adult cervical cancer patients (diagnosed 2010-11) are predicted to survive ten or more years.
  • Around two-thirds of women with cervical cancer survive their disease for five years or more. More than 6 in 10 women with cervical cancer survive their disease for at least ten years.
  • More than 400 people diagnosed with cancer every day in the UK will survive the disease for more than 10 years.                              
  • An estimated 52,000 patients a year in the UK will have their chances of survival cut because the cancer is not caught quickly enough.                                                   (Cancer Research UK, November 2014)
  • One in three cancer patients suffered harm because of a delay of between one and three months.                                                                         (National Patient Safety Agency, 2014)                                                                                                                                                                                            
  • One in three cancer patients die within a year because of a late diagnosis.                (Macmillan Cancer Support- Cancer in the UK Report, 2014)

Pap smear tests

Forty years ago, half of all patients died within one year of diagnosis. Today, average life expectancy, based on the length of time from either the date of diagnosis or the start of treatment, is around six years. Nearly two in three of adult cervical cancer patients can now survive ten or yearsor more.

Advances in screening and the detection techniques of smear tests, scans and biopsies to detect cancer have significantly improved the interpretation of results, diagnoses and treatments. Their use by doctors to make an early and accurate diagnosis is crucial to extending life expectancy.

What is a smear test?

Cell samples taken from the inside of the cervix (the lower part of the womb) are smeared across a glass microscope slide to detect cancers, ‘pre-cancers’ (abnormal cell changes) and other conditions.  In older women, there may be insufficient cells for analysis, and so they may require a repeat smear test.

What happens next...

If the results of the test show any suspicious signs, such as inflammation, or are actually cancerous:

  • A repeat smear should be taken after several months, or
  • Your GP or doctor should arrange a referral to a specialist gynaecologist.

False negative test result...

While smear tests are the most effective method of diagnosing cervical cancer, false-negative reports may occur in up to 40% of all tests.

A ‘false negative’ is... where cervical cells that are actually or potentially abnormal or, cancerous are diagnosed as being normal, thereby causing a delay in the discovery of this disease and its treatment.

A ‘false positive’ is... where normal cervical cells are diagnosed as abnormal or cancerous.

As cervical cancers can take up to 10 – 12 years to develop, if abnormal cells are missed during one smear test, they will probably be found on a subsequent test.

Pap smear tests should be taken:

  • Every 3 years - between ages 21 and 29.

Every 5 years (with HPV test) - between ages 30 and 64.

  - If a pap smear result was abnormal, your doctor may advise you to have a HPV test to detect the presence of a virus, which can cause abnormal cervical cells, cervical cancer or genital warts.

  • You're aged 30 or older
  • More frequently - in special cases, e.g. previous chemotherapy or steroid use.


First developed in the 1970s, MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and CT (computer tomography) are body scanning technologies that, together with ultrasound scans and bone scans, are vital tools in patient diagnosis.

MRI scans – unlike CT scans, MRI scans can be taken from multiple angles to show the detailed definition of all body tissues, both normal and abnormal.

CT scans - provide a cross-section examination of layers of the body to more easily reveal abnormalities at a given depth within the body.

Ultrasound scans - used to determine the exact location of a tumour, for planning radiotherapy and as a guide for biopsies and pain reduction procedures.

Bone scans - involve injecting into the vein a radioactive dye that is absorbed in a greater quantity by an abnormal bone and shows up on the scan as highlighted areas.

The results of an image scan can only be properly acted upon if ‘read’ correctly by an experienced doctor or specialist. It is therefore vital that all scans are examined and reviewed by experts in their field who can correctly interpret the images and advise the patient as to the appropriate next steps and subsequent treatment.


Biopsies can help differentiate between different types of cancer and are usually carried out when a conclusive diagnosis is needed.

Known as an incisional or core biopsy, a small sample of tissue is taken from the target area to be examined under a microscope.

Other types of biopsies...

  • Excisional biopsy - an entire lump or suspicious area is removed.
  • Needle aspiration biopsy - a sample of tissue or fluid is taken with a needle.

How Your Legal Friend can help you...

Every day in the UK, more than 400 people diagnosed with cancer will survive the disease for more than 10 years.                                 (Cancer Research UK)

However, failing to make the correct diagnosis or any diagnosis can allow the cancer to spread, reducing the chance for an effective treatment and shortening life expectancy.

The best possible outcome for surviving cancer is dependent on:

  • Early diagnosis
  • Correct and accurate testing
  • Appropriate treatment

As experienced clinical negligence specialists, we know that you will want to find out why your GP, doctor or hospital failed you or a family member in their duty of care, whether this relates to smear testing, image scan reading or the diagnosis of a biopsy.

We ensure your case is properly investigated and your voice heard in order to bring the hospital, health trust or medical practitioner to account for the harm and suffering they have 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.