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Misinterpreting Smear Tests and Failing to Diagnose Cervical Cancer

I have just recovered damages for a woman who developed cervical cancer after a succession of cervical smear tests were misinterpreted.

Had my client’s tests been correctly interpreted, her condition would have been diagnosed when there were abnormal cells - a pre-malignant cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) lesion - but full cancer had not yet developed.

In short, she would have had a better outcome and her chances of surviving her cancer would have been much higher at around 80-85%.

In addition, she would have avoided very unpleasant and intrusive treatment that included chemoradiotherapy – a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to destroy cancer cells- which has caused her to suffer both bladder and bowel incontinence.

There is always of risk of ‘false negative’ reports, with smears tests failing to display abnormalities under the microscope where there are in fact malignant cells. The risk of this occurring, however, is only around 20% - although at one time when different techniques were used to analyse samples, this figure was higher.

This means that if a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer, and she has had regular smear tests in previous years, it is likely that at least one of her smears has been misinterpreted. Given that cervical cancer often develops very slowly, there may be a period as long as 10 years during which smears should show pre-cancerous cells.

There is a wide range of outcomes. Some mistakes cause no harm because, even though abnormal cells are missed, they haven’t yet developed into cancer by the time doctors realise their mistake. Others have to undergo more intrusive treatment than they would otherwise need - and suffer unpleasant side effects as a result. This can include problems with their bladder and bowel, pain on intercourse, bleeding, early menopause and psychiatric problems.

In the worse cases, I have acted for the families of women who died because their cancer had reached an advanced state by the time of diagnosis - deaths which were entirely avoidable.

It is very concerning how many of these cases the Slater and Gordon Medical Negligence team deal with. This is an area of work with which I have become very familiar simply because of the sheer number of cases we come across.

This suggests that cytologists – the specialists who analyse smear tests under the microscope – are not always making the right judgements. It also suggests that monitoring systems for checking and reviewing their work are not working well enough.

Cervical cancer is a rare form of cancer that often has no symptoms in the early stages. This means it is often not diagnosed until the cancer is more advanced. Early symptoms that can develop include unusual vaginal bleeding and pain during sex. But when the disease is more advanced, further symptoms include constipation, weight loss, bladder dysfunction, back pain and blood in the urine.

Screening is offered to all women between 25-64 years of age in the UK and aims to identify abnormal cells before they turn cancerous. If tests are performed correctly and abnormal pre-cancerous cells are reported, further testing should be recommended within four weeks followed by immediate treatment to prevent the cancer from spreading.

Paul Sankey is a Senior Medical Negligence Solicitor leading the Slater and Gordon Lawyers Clinical Negligence team in London.

Slater and Gordon Lawyers help people who have suffered from delayed or wrong diagnosis of cervical cancer due to Medical Negligence.

For a free consultation call the Medical Negligence Solicitors at Slater and Gordon Lawyers on freephone 0800 916 9049 or contact us online and we will call you.

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