There are few things as frightening and overwhelming as receiving a cancer diagnosis from your physician. But, for many patients – particularly those with advanced cancers – the pain of this situation is compounded by wondering: could this have ended better, could I have been spared this pain and suffering, if my condition had been diagnosed sooner?
With breast cancer, as with many other cancers, early detection is absolutely essential to ensure the best chance of survival. As our experienced cancer misdiagnosis attorneys are all-too-well aware, the failure to diagnose breast cancer can lead to immeasurable suffering, unnecessary surgeries, and even death.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is, just as it sounds, a malignant growth in a victim’s breast tissue. Although most people associate breast cancer with women, men have breast tissue, as well, in smaller amounts, and can thus occasionally suffer from breast cancer, as well.
Breast cancer in women, however, is extremely common. In fact, although studies vary, up to one in every seven American women will suffer from breast cancer at some point in life.
How Is Breast Cancer Discovered?
Breast cancer diagnoses, unlike those of many diseases, often originate from the patient herself. Physicians recommend that all adult women perform a breast self-examination at least once per month. When women perform these exams regularly, they can learn the consistency of their own breast tissue, and help detect any changes or lumps. Discharge from the nipple is another symptom which women often notice on their own.
Breast cancer can also be found following a medical examination. Physicians and gynecologists should check breasts at regular appointments. Additionally, women over 40 should also have mammograms on a regular basis. The failure to instruct a patient to obtain a mammogram appropriate for her age range or the failure to correctly read a mammogram can be a form of medical negligence.
How Is Breast Cancer Diagnosed?
A breast cancer diagnosis requires a follow-up examination, after the abnormality is observed. There are a number of tests that can be used for follow-up analysis of a woman’s condition.
One of the most common follow-up tests is a mammogram, or more detailed mammograms. Also common is a needle aspiration, in which a needle is inserted into the area in question, and used to obtain tissue, or drain fluids from the tissue for testing. Traditional biopsies are also used.
Although mammograms are useful, and extremely common, they are also risky. Some studies show that up to 80%, or 4 out of every 5, breast cancer patients, had a mammogram done of the area, which was incorrectly interpreted as non-cancerous. In addition to simple misreading of test results, some of these misreadings are the result of physical elements (such as particularly dense breast tissue). In those cases, the failure to recognize cancer (or order follow-up testing) may or may not be medical malpractice. Other misreadings are the result of technical problems with the mammogram equipment itself, which may be the result of either negligent maintenance or products liability.
More and more, physicians are recognizing the utility of using MRIs in breast cancer diagnosis. Some studies have shown that an MRI can detect up to 3% of those breast cancers which mammograms miss. But other studies have shown that, for certain types of breast cancer, mammograms detect only 56% of cases, while MRIs detect 92%. The standard of care is certainly evolving in this area. Our experienced medical malpractice attorneys believe that now, in at least some circumstances, the failure to use MRI screening or follow-up testing may amount to medical negligence.
Who Is at Risk?
Although all women are at risk to develop breast cancer, there are several particular risk factors. A woman is considered to have a high risk of breast cancer if she:
- Has either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation.
- Has a family history of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, especially in a parent, child, or sibling.
- Has a family history of breast or other cancers.
- Has had radiation to the chest while she was between 10 and 30 years of age.
- Has (or has a close relative with) Cowden syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome.
- Had an early onset of menstruation and puberty, or a late onset of menopause
- Has never borne a child.
There is also research indicating that additional factors, such as a late age when first becoming pregnant, a first pregnancy which is not carried to term, or long-term use of oral contraceptives or estrogen, may put women at higher risk of developing breast cancer.
For women in these high-risk categories, physicians should be using ultrasounds, as well as mammograms. Ultrasounds can produce false positives – but are far less likely to miss active cancers. If you are in one of these high-risk categories and your physician is not employing ultrasound screening, ask why not. If are in one of these high-risk categories and your physician missed your breast cancer while failing to employ ultrasound screening, talk to an experienced medical malpractice attorney about whether you may have a claim.
Stephen M. Passen of Passen & Powell has over 30 years experience representing individuals and families in medical malpractice cases, including cases involving failure to timely diagnose breast cancer. For a free consultation with Mr. Passen, call us at 312-527-4500, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill out a free case evaluation form on our website.