Understanding Failure to Diagnose Cancer and Cancer Misdiagnosis

Failure to diagnose is an especially harmful form of medical malpractice when cancer is the condition affected by the doctor’s negligence. A successful cancer treatment depends almost entirely on a prompt and reliable diagnosis. If such a diagnosis is made, a malignant tumor may be detected during an earlier and more treatable stage. But if an imaging study, biopsy, or other diagnostic test is not ordered or if such tests are misinterpreted, a critical opportunity for a person facing cancer to overcome it may be lost.

Cancer’s serious risk means that most patients place their care and trust in the hands of physicians specializing in oncology. The initial diagnosis, however, is generally the responsibility of the treating physician, who is probably a general practice doctor. Because most people do not present to oncologists until referred by a primary health care provider, the “regular doctor” must be prepared to act responsibly in his or her role as “gatekeeper.” If there is a failure to perform to the necessary medical standard of care, the patient may not be sent to the specialist promptly.

If there is a claim for negligence in cancer diagnosis, it is likely to be based on the failure to make a cancer diagnosis, or failure to make such a diagnosis in a timely manner. The gatekeeper physician’s failures may allow cancer to metastasize, meaning to spread from the primary site in the body to another organ or system.

If given the opportunity to advance to metastasis, cancer is likely to cut life expectancy short significantly. If aggressive surgery or other therapies are possible, the patient may survive. He or she may have to endure extreme pain, perhaps even facing the loss of a limb or bone which must be sacrificed to prevent the cancer from spreading further. If such harms would have been avoided had appropriate or sufficient diagnostic tests been performed and interpreted, a failure to diagnose cancer claim may be possible.

A claim based on misdiagnosis may also occur. If the gatekeeper physician does order diagnostic tests such as an MRI or biopsy, a radiologist or pathologist may err in interpreting the image or specimen information. The result may be a cancer diagnosis where the disease does not actually exist. If misdiagnosis is not corrected, the patient may be exposed to unnecessary surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation treatment.