Breast Cancer Misdiagnosis Lawsuits: What You Need to Know
Orange County Wrongful Death Attorneys
Misdiagnosis is one of the most common reasons medical malpractice occurs. With cancers, misdiagnosis can be devastating, easily resulting in death or permanent disability. Breast cancers are one such type of cancer where misdiagnosis can have catastrophic consequences.
Breast cancer is an extremely serious disease and is the second leading cause of death from cancer in American women. Approximately 1 in 8 women (13%) will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. Thus, the American Cancer Society recommends that women between 40 to 44 be given the option to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms, that women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year, and that women 55 and older should continue having mammograms either every year or every two years. The goal of these screening studies is to detect breast cancer as early as possible, as disease outcomes are strongly associated with the stage of the cancer at detection. The earlier the cancer is detected, the more likely that treatment will be effective, will be less invasive, and will involve fewer side effects.
Failure by a healthcare provider to diagnose cancer early may deprive the patient of their best chance to fight and recover from their disease. While an early stage breast cancer may be treatable just with a lump removal surgery, later stage cancers may necessitate complete removal of the breasts, removal of lymph nodes, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. These treatments can have profound side effects.
Failure to diagnose breast cancer in a timely manner may also place the patient at greater risk for cancer recurrence in the future. It may even lead to the patient’s death if the cancer is too advanced or too aggressive when it is finally detected. When breast cancer is not treated early because a healthcare provider made a misdiagnosis for lack of reasonable care, that may constitute medical malpractice.
How Do Breast Cancers Develop and Spread?
Breast cancers, like other cancers, are made out of rapidly growing, abnormal cells that crowd out normal tissues and can invade or spread to other parts of the body. They are generally the result of genetic mutations that render the cells unable to stop growing and dividing, and that cause them to no longer stay in their place within the body. Breast cancers specifically arise from the tissues within the breast.
Within the subset of breast cancers, the most common types are:
- Invasive ductal carcinoma, which originates from the ducts that carry milk to the nipple; and
- Invasive lobular carcinoma, which originates in the glands that make breast milk.
Once cells become cancerous, a tumor may develop from the dividing cells. This sometimes results in a noticeable breast lump, although breast cancers can also grow more diffusely, resulting in no specific lump.
Eventually, cancer cells may spread to other areas of the body through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system, which normally transports various cellular waste products and damaged cells. Most of the lymph vessels of the breast drain into the axillary lymph nodes (which are under the arm), the supraclavicular and infraclavicular lymph nodes (which are above and below the collar bone respectively), and the internal mammary lymph nodes (which are inside the chest near the breast bone). Thus, as breast cancers become more advanced, they tend to spread to those lymph nodes. Highly advanced cancers can spread to organs far away from the breast, including bones, the liver, the lung, and the brain.
As breast cancers grow, they may cause various findings to appear on mammograms, including:
- Abnormal clusters of calcifications;
- Architectural distortion (abnormal arrangement of tissue strands within the breast);
- Developing asymmetries (areas of asymmetry in a breast that are changing over time);
- New or enlarging breast densities.
Ultrasounds may also show a number of abnormalities.
How Breast Cancer Misdiagnoses Happen
The most typical scenario that leads to a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of breast cancer is a failure to recognize signs of cancer during the interpretation of mammograms by a radiologist.
The point of periodic screening mammograms is to detect breast cancer early, therefore providing the patient with the best possible chance to recover from the disease with a minimum of harmful side effects. Thus, when a patient has a screening mammogram, the images from the study are generally interpreted by a radiologist who looks for various abnormalities that might indicate the presence of cancer.
If something suspicious is seen, a follow up diagnostic mammogram or ultrasound may be ordered to further define what the finding is. If that too shows something suspicious, or if what was found earlier was highly suspicious, a biopsy may be ordered. Biopsies are widely relied on to provide the definitive diagnosis since they involve actually gathering a tissue sample for interpretation in a lab.
But in the event that a radiologist does not identify a suspicious finding seen on a screening mammogram, then follow-ups to determine if there really is cancer may not take place. If there are repeated failures to appreciate a suspicious finding on multiple mammograms, this may add up to years of delay in treating the disease, potentially giving the cancer time to grow and spread to other parts of the body. As a result, the patient may require far more surgery and medical care to treat their cancer, may suffer many more side effects, and might even die of the disease.
Radiologists can also fail to appreciate findings on diagnostic mammograms with similar consequences: no biopsy may be performed until later, by which point the disease may be much more dangerous and difficult to treat.
Another scenario that may lead to misdiagnosis of breast cancer is a failure by a healthcare provider to appreciate signs of cancer during a breast examination, such as inadequately addressing a new or changing breast lump by failing to order an ultrasound, follow-up mammogram, or biopsy. It is also possible for pathologists to misinterpret biopsy results and report that a tissue sample is benign when it is really cancerous.
When these errors occur because the provider failed to exercise reasonable care and, as a result, the patient suffers harm, it is medical malpractice.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to misdiagnoses. These include confirmation bias, where the provider looks for evidence to confirm what they think is the diagnosis while excluding evidence that says otherwise (in other words, seeing only what they want to see), and anchoring bias, where the provider relies too heavily on an initial piece of information when making decisions and discounts other information acquired later. Preconceived notions are often the enemy of good medical practice. Inadequate training, lack of carefulness, and poor communication on the part of physicians or non-physician health professionals can also be major contributors.
Determining legal liability in a breast cancer lawsuit can be complex given the number of healthcare professionals who may be involved at each stage of care and treatment. Such issues are best handled through the guidance of a personal injury lawyer who has experience in dealing with such matters.
What to Do Next
At this point, you may have questions about what to do next. If you believe that you have suffered from a misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of breast cancer, you should consider consulting an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Additionally, you should consider taking the following actions:
- Continue working with your treating cancer doctors and your support network, including friends and family: Cancer is a terrifying diagnosis, and breast cancer is no exception. Thus, you should continue with your medical care, as well as obtaining any emotional support that will help you overcome this disease;
- Request your medical records from the physicians or facilities that you feel may have misdiagnosed you, as well as your subsequent treaters, including hospitals, oncologists, surgeons, and any other healthcare providers who have rendered you care and treatment for breast cancer: You have a right to your medical records under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA);
- Obtain your mammograms and breast ultrasounds: This is crucial if you believe that your breast cancer was previously missed on one of your radiology studies. You should consider obtaining all of the actual breast imaging available at the facility where you had your scans in addition to any radiology reports — the typed documents that describe what was seen on the images. You may also consider obtaining any PET scans or breast MRI scans you may have had following your diagnosis. These studies can often be produced on a CD or DVD by the facility where they took place.
These items will be essential to any evaluation of your potential case, and they may aid your attorney in building a complete timeline of the consequences of your breast cancer misdiagnosis.
You may also consider gathering together:
- Documentation of any out-of-pocket medical expenses you have incurred related to your breast cancer care and treatment.
- Documents relating to any earnings you may have lost or are likely to lose in the future if your breast cancer, as well as your involved care and treatment, has prevented you from working.
You may be entitled to compensation for these expenses, so long as they are calculable and directly traceable to the misdiagnosis.
Causes of action may also be available for deaths attributable to a misdiagnosis of breast cancer. If you believe that a loved one has expired because an opportunity to treat their disease was missed on account of medical negligence, consider gathering their medical records and relevant imaging and seeking legal advice. You may also consider gathering together all documentation of any funeral, burial, cremation, or memorial expenses incurred, as those might be compensable items in a legal case.
Contact a Breast Cancer Misdiagnosis Lawyer for Assistance
Discovering that you or a loved one have suffered from breast cancer misdiagnosis due to physician negligence can be profoundly distressing. However, you may have legal recourse and a right to compensation for your losses and hardships. We may be able to help.
The attorneys at Hodes Milman have been handling high-profile injury cases for more than 30 years. What sets us apart from other law firms is our availability, resourcefulness, and our unwavering commitment to you as a client.
Contact our attorneys at (949) 640-8222 for a free consultation regarding your misdiagnosis claim. We provide dedicated, competent legal advice and representation to ensure you get the justice you deserve.
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