False positive: the damage a cancer misdiagnosis can do

False positive: the damage a cancer misdiagnosis can do

by | Apr 19, 2021 | Medical Malpractice |

As our San Antonio legal blog readers know, misdiagnosis of cancer is one of the most common reasons for medical malpractice lawsuits. In most cancer misdiagnosis cases, there’s a failure to diagnose cancer – a patient has a form of cancer, but the doctor misreads the signs or misses them entirely.

But there’s another type of cancer misdiagnosis that happens, too: a false positive. That is, a patient who doesn’t have cancer is misdiagnosed and told that he or she has the disease.

Too common

Unfortunately, misdiagnoses are common. According to the journal BMJ Quality & Safety, about 1 in 20 Americans – or approximately 16 million – are misdiagnosed every year, with up to 80,000 people dying annually from complications associated with misdiagnosis.

Certain types of cancer – breast cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer – are misdiagnosed up to 61 percent of the time, according to researchers.

And according to the New England Journal of Medicine, 31 percent of all breast cancers are overdiagnosed, meaning that nonlife-threatening tumors are diagnosed as life-threatening. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation says mammograms fail to detect 16 percent of breast cancers, though other estimates put the figure closer to 30 percent.

Unneeded treatments

The National Law Review points out that perhaps the greatest danger in a false-positive cancer misdiagnosis is that aggressive treatments will take place. As cancer survivors know full well, treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy typically come with a variety of difficult side effects, including:

  • Pain
  • Infection
  • Fatigue
  • Hair loss
  • Bleeding
  • Loss of sleep
  • Difficulties with memory, concentration
  • Fluid build-up
  • Anemia

Radiation and chemotherapy kill cancerous cells, but they can also raise the likelihood of developing a second cancer. In false-positive cases, the treatments damage healthy cells while unnecessarily raising the risk in a healthy person of developing cancer.

Of course, surgery is another cancer treatment option. Breast cancer surgery can involve the removal of all or part of breasts (mastectomy), while prostate surgery can result in a small percentage of cases in the permanent loss of bladder control or erectile dysfunction.

Cancer treatments are by design aggressive efforts to restore health and eliminate disease. In cases of false-positive cancer misdiagnosis, unneeded treatments can leave patients physically damaged, frustrated and angry – and determined to get answers and justice.