Most Commonly Misdiagnosed Cancers

Doctor in Holistic Cancer Treatment CenterWhen it comes to cancer, the time of the diagnosis can make the difference between detecting the cancer when it is still surgically possible to do so and when it is too late. Oftentimes, when cancer is detected early on, it would be possible to surgically remove all the cancerous tumors and reduce the risk of the disease returning. When the cancer is detected too late however, then the cancerous tumors might have already spread to other parts of the body, making surgery an ineffective treatment.

That being said, a lot of is being placed on genetic testing. Genetic testing is expected to produce accurate results that would tell patients if they have genetic markers that are predisposed towards certain cancers. Unfortunately, while the science behind genetic testing is admittedly still evolving, there is still a large margin of error within its results. In fact, just earlier this week, a San Francisco-based genetic company will retest 50,000 samples after one of its tests came back as a false negative. On the other hand, the media is abuzz with news of people being diagnosed with cancer only for these patients to undergo chemotherapy, and, in a man’s case, be prepped for surgery, only to be told that they were actually cancer-free!

While these cases are extreme, to say the least, they are not at all uncommon. In fact, in a study published by BMJ Publishing Group Ltd and The Health Foundation, it says that “diagnostic errors affect at least 1 in 20 US adults. This foundational evidence should encourage policymakers, healthcare [organisations] and researchers to start measuring and reducing diagnostic errors.”

Understanding diagnostic errors

In the book Improving Diagnosis in Health Care as published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Diagnostic errors persist throughout all settings of care, involve common and rare diseases, and continue to harm an unacceptable number of patients. Yet, diagnosis—and, in particular, the occurrence of diagnostic errors—is not a major focus in health care practice or research. The result of this inattention is significant: it is likely that most people will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequences.”

Cancer is one of the most misdiagnosed diseases in the world. While being told that you have cancer when you are actually suffering from a more curable disease, the effects could be devastating if the tables were turned. After all, if you were told that you only had stomach ulcers and thus were the reason for your stomach ache, only to be diagnosed with a late stage colon cancer later on, you would pretty much have little room for treatment as the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body.

According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, misdiagnosis in cancer can occur 28% of the time, with 44% for some forms of cancer. The latter figure is backed by the JAMA network, when it identified 44% of undiagnosed and misdiagnosed cases of malignant neoplasms at autopsy. The error can be derived anywhere within the process of diagnosis – such as from misreading the test sample, using the wrong test sample, incomplete medical history, missing or fragmented information, and inadequate time for patient evaluation.

For this reason, it is important that patients are straightforward with their doctors about their medical history. For example, a lady whose grandfather has died of colon cancer and whose father has had the cancer should tell the doctor that she is at risk of the disease when complaining of a stomach ache, instead of dismissing it immediately as a case of constipation. Downplaying symptoms and neglecting to tell doctors about the extent of cancer in the family can also lead to misdiagnosis.

Commonly misdiagnosed cancers

Here are some of the more commonly misdiagnosed cancers:

  • Breast cancer – one in eight women is diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. However, some of these cases are instead misdiagnosed as non-cancerous cysts, breast inflammation, or fibrocystic breast disease.
  • Colorectal cancer – there are many types of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs) that can mimic the symptoms of colorectal cancer. Irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis are some of them, as well as hemorrhoids. However, patients who feel that they are at risk of the cancer should speak up and talk to their doctor in detail about their symptoms, so that they can get the appropriate diagnostic tests.
  • Lung cancer – since this cancer usually manifests in coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, it can be misdiagnosed with respiratory conditions such as pneumonia or tuberculosis. Unfortunately, by the time proper tests may have been requested for the patient, the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body.
  • Pancreatic cancer – similar to colorectal cancer, this can be misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, or even gallstones or pancreatitis. Some doctors even make the mistake of diagnosing pancreatic cancer as diabetes and leave it at that, since the disease is actually a symptom of the cancer.

How to ensure you have the right diagnosis

Being told that you have cancer and only have a specific number of months or days to live can be heartbreaking for anybody. This is where it pays to research and know your body so that you would not be misdiagnosed. Here are some tips to ensure you have the right diagnosis:

  • Be fruitful about your medical history – since certain cancers tend to run in families, being open about your medical history will help your doctor come to an accurate diagnosis.
  • Ask about specific tests – if you feel that your pain or complaint is being dismissed or downplayed, you can still insist that you be given the test. The caveat, of course, is that if it turns out you do not have the disease, you would have to pay for the cost of the test. If you turn out right however, then you would at least get peace of mind.
  • Get a second opinion – the likelihood of two doctors getting the diagnosis wrong is remote. When you transfer to a different doctor, ask for your tests to be redone, since the error could have come from the lab. Once you have a different set of workups, compare them and ask the doctor for his opinion. By doing this, you would be able to clearly see the differences or similarities of both tests.

Of course, it also goes without saying that you should ask your doctor everything that you need to know about your disease. This will help you come to the right decision about your treatment and recovery.