Cancer misdiagnosis: common examples and how you can make a successful claim

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Terry Regan

Director and Head of Medical and Clinical Negligence

Published - 09/08/2023

Considered one of the most serious and damaging medical negligence cases, cancer misdiagnosis affects around 4 in 10 people in the UK. Misdiagnosis cancer can have serious consequences for patients, leading to a delayed diagnosis where the cancer may have spread or advanced in stage. Finding cancer early can make the condition more treatable, so when it goes undetected, it can lead to further complications. Once you become aware of the misdiagnosis, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.

In this guide, we will explore various cancers that are often misdiagnosed, what they can be mistaken for, and why you should seek help from medical negligence solicitors like our team at Wake Smith.

Breast, cervical and ovarian cancer misdiagnosis

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, but it is also one of the most curable. In later years, symptoms of breast cancer can be mistaken for menopause, mastitis, non-malignant cysts, fibrocystic breast disease and fibroadenomas. When misinterpreted as these conditions, breast cancer can grow and spread, which can lead to a loss of lymph nodes and feeling around the breast, a mastectomy or, in the worst-case scenario, death.

If you have been incorrectly diagnosed with a condition other than breast cancer and it has had a serious impact on your life, you are fully entitled to make a breast cancer misdiagnosis claim and retrieve compensation. You must gather as much evidence as possible, such as incorrect test results and your formal cancer diagnosis. To find out more, you can read our previous guide here.

Like breast cancer, the progression of cervical and ovarian cancers are entirely preventable when found early. However, misdiagnosis can lead to a delay in diagnosing both cancers. Cervical cancer in particular shares symptoms with less serious conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids; symptoms include heavy vaginal bleeding and pain during sex. Ovarian cancer can often be confused with menopause and ovarian cysts. Both cancers share similar symptoms too, such as vaginal bleeding.

Cervical cancer can often be misdiagnosed when PAP smear results are read inaccurately or if the swabs have been stored incorrectly. There is currently no reliable screening method for ovarian cancer, however, it can be misdiagnosed if a medical professional fails to send the patient for further testing. To find out how you can make a claim for ovarian or cervical cancer misdiagnosis, please read our previous guide here.

Skin, blood and bone cancer misdiagnosis

There are two types of skin cancer that can be misdiagnosed: melanoma and non-melanoma. There are many obvious signs of skin cancer, including new moles, changes to existing moles and a new lump or patch on the skin. Skin cancer can often be mistaken for conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and benign tumours. A skin cancer diagnosis can be delayed if a medical professional mistakes your cancer for something else, or your biopsy results are mixed up or replaced. Misdiagnosing skin cancer can lead to the cancer spreading, which will require more aggressive treatment, which can severely impact your life. To find out more, or to make a claim, you can read our full guide here.

Bone cancer is rare, but it can easily be misdiagnosed, and includes osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma. Depending on the location, symptoms can vary, but include pain, swelling and fatigue. Around 30% of bone cancer cases are misdiagnosed or mismanaged; this often occurs due to errors with testing or improper reading of the results. It is often misdiagnosed as arthritis in older people or growing pains in teenagers and young adults, so if you have previously been diagnosed with these conditions before bone cancer was confirmed, you may be entitled to compensation. You can read our full guide here to find out more.

Blood cancer, also known as leukaemia, has many subtypes, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It shares some of its symptoms, such as fatigue and night sweats, with many less serious conditions, making it hard to diagnose without proper testing. Blood cancer can even be mistaken for the flu or other respiratory illnesses, prolonging an accurate diagnosis. If you have recently had your leukaemia misdiagnosed, you should gather evidence of the misdiagnosis, including incorrect tests, and seek legal advice.

Bladder and bowel cancer misdiagnosis

Bladder cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK and mainly affects people over the age of 75. The symptoms of bladder cancer, such as blood in your urine and a pain or burning sensation when urinating, can be mistaken for other conditions, like kidney stones or a urinary tract infection (UTI). If you are a male, you may even get tested for prostate cancer first. Each misdiagnosis can lead to the cancer growing and spreading, potentially lowering a patient’s chance of survival. If you have been affected by bladder cancer misdiagnosis, please read our previous guide here for more information.

Bowel cancer, also known as colon cancer or rectal cancer, is the 4th most diagnosed cancer in the UK. Rectal bleeding, frequent abdominal pain and unexplained changes in stool habits are all tell-tale signs of bowel cancer and should be investigated. Bowel cancer can often be mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis or diverticulitis. Although these conditions are serious, having them diagnosed when you have bowel cancer can be devastating and have a great impact. You can read our guide here to find out more about making a claim.

Prostate and testicular cancer misdiagnosis

Prostate cancer is particularly prevalent in men over the age of 50 and spotting the signs early can be lifesaving. Like bladder cancer, prostate cancer can be mistaken for a UTI due to similar symptoms, such as difficulty urinating and blood in the urine. Therefore, the cancers can be mistaken for each other, leading to the wrong test being performed. Failure to perform PSA testing or perform a biopsy can lead to a fatal misdiagnosis. To find out more, please refer to our previous guide here.

Testicular cancer is common in men aged between 15 and 49, and can be mistaken for conditions such as mumps (due to the symptom of swelling), epididymitis and testicular torsion. Due to medical negligence, testicular cancer can be mistaken for these illnesses, which can lead to a delayed diagnosis and more aggressive treatment being implemented, such as radiotherapy and even surgery. You should seek legal advice if your cancer has been misdiagnosed and it has severely impacted your way of life. We explain more about testicular cancer misdiagnosis in our previous guide here.

Liver cancer misdiagnosis

Liver cancer presents flu-like symptoms and can leave patients feeling tired with no appetite. A more obvious sign of liver cancer is jaundice, where the skin adopts a yellowish tint. Liver cancer can often be misdiagnosed as a fatty liver or a liver abscess, leading to a delayed diagnosis of liver cancer. Misdiagnosis can result in more aggressive treatment, or part of your liver being removed. You should seek legal advice as soon as possible, gathering all necessary evidence that proves that medical negligence led to your misdiagnosis. To find out more, read our previous guide here.

Lung cancer misdiagnosis

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the UK, so misdiagnosis can be devastating for patients and their families. A persistent cough, coughing up blood and chest pain are all symptoms of lung cancer, but they can be mistaken for other illnesses. Asthma, gastric reflux disease and acid reflux are all conditions that lung cancer can be misdiagnosed as, which can prove to be fatal. Any medical professional dealing with your case, from your GP to clinician, can be responsible for misdiagnosis, so you should gather evidence and seek legal advice. Read our previous guide here for more information.

Kidney cancer misdiagnosis

Around 45% of kidney cancer patients have previously been told that their cancer was something less serious, leading to many misdiagnosis cases forming. Blood in your urine, pain in one side of your back and weight loss or all symptoms of kidney cancer, and anything out of the ordinary for you should be investigated. Similar to bladder cancer, kidney cancer can be mistaken for a UTI or kidney stones, as well as renal infarction and kidney disease. Undiagnosed kidney cancer can grow in stages, leading to the cancer spreading and the cancerous kidney being removed. If you have had to undergo major surgery that could have been avoided, you may be able to make a medical negligence claim.

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About the author

Terry Regan

Director and Head of Medical and Clinical Negligence

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