Medical negligence

What are the consequences of a breast cancer misdiagnosis?

A breast cancer misdiagnosis can have devastating consequences, causing delays or the use of unnecessary, potential aggressive treatments. What should you do if you’ve been misdiagnosed?

06 December 2023

Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the UK. According to analysis carried out by Cancer Research UK, it accounts for 15% of all new cancer cases each year; on average, there are 55,920 new cases of breast cancer reported annually – that’s more than 150 new cases every day.

What’s more, these figures look set to rise, with projections suggesting that could be nearly 70,000 new cases each year by 2038-2040.

For many people living with breast cancer, new research and developing treatments mean that the prognosis is often good, with over three-quarters of women diagnosed with breast cancer surviving the disease for ten or more years.

Yet as with other cancers, the outlook frequently depends upon receiving the right diagnosis quickly. If the cancer is caught quickly enough, the vast majority of people will likely be able to live long and healthy lives following their diagnosis due to early intervention.

However, if the cancer is missed, misdiagnosed or overdiagnosed, the chances of a positive prognosis can be significantly reduced.

What is breast cancer misdiagnosis?

The term ‘misdiagnosis’ refers to a medical illness which erroneously diagnosed. This could be because it has been misidentified as a different illness, the seriousness of the condition has been misinterpreted, or the illness has been missed entirely.

Breast cancer misdiagnosis can have serious, even fatal, consequences. Mistakes in the diagnosis stage of breast cancer, whether that be a misdiagnosis or a delay in processing test appointments or results, can significantly impact the outlook for the patient. In serious cases, it can also mean that a condition is mistreated or not treated at all. This can lead to the cancer spreading unchecked, putting the patient’s life at risk.

In the UK, the vast majority of medical professionals provide patients with the highest standard of care. However, mistakes do happen, and in such circumstances the consequences can be severe. The most common causes for delays in breast cancer diagnosis are:

  • A failure to recognise the symptoms of breast cancer, therefore delaying testing
  • Inadequate examinations or tests are carried out, resulting in cancer being missed or misdiagnosed
  • Inappropriate advice, or a lack of advice, given to a patient meaning they do not seek additional medical help when necessary
  • Mistakes in interpreting the results of tests

Such delays can lead to a missed diagnosis of breast cancer, or a diagnosis that comes too late to provide a more positive outlook.

What’s more, mistakes that occur when interpreting the results can lead to breast cancer being misdiagnosed as another disease or condition, such as cysts or fibrotic breast tissue. This can also work in reverse, where a benign condition is diagnosed as cancer, or an early stage cancer considered to be more advanced than it actually is. These mistakes – known as overdiagnosis – can lead to unnecessary treatments and surgeries, which can be more aggressive and invasive than is needed.

How often is breast cancer misdiagnosed?

It is unknown how often breast cancer is misdiagnosed in the UK, as the data isn’t currently tracked. There have been studies, the majority of which have been carried out outside of the UK, that attempt to define how frequently misdiagnosis occurs, though findings vary wildly and cannot be considered reliable.

It is important to note, however, that there are relatively common conditions that can often be misdiagnosed as breast cancer, or vice versa. These include:

  • Breast cysts or fibrotic breast tissue
  • Mastitis
  • Pregnancy-related breast changes

Breast cysts (round, moveable, fluid-filled pockets under the skin) and fibrotic breast tissue (rubbery, firm, scar tissue) can be common, typically in women of childbearing age though they can develop at any age. These are typically benign, though some cysts do carry a risk of being cancerous. Your doctor may wish to carry out a biopsy to be sure.

Mastitis is a condition which often develops during breastfeeding. It is an infection caused by a clogged duct or broken skin on the nipple, which then causes the breast to swell. You may develop a hard lump, or the breast may look red, or feel hot and itchy. Due to this, it can sometimes be mistaken for inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), a relatively rare form of breast cancer.

It is completely normal for pregnancy and breastfeeding to cause changes to breasts, but it is also possible to develop breast cancer during these changes, though this is rare. This means that diagnoses can be delayed, as changes are attributed to pregnancy and not investigated further.

All of this means that there are many factors that can contribute to misdiagnosis. If you are concerned that you have been misdiagnosed, speak to your doctor about getting a second opinion. This could be at any stage of diagnosis, including identifying which tests to carry out (if any), interpreting the results of tests, or deciding which treatment to prescribe.

What should I do if I think I have been misdiagnosed?

The consequences of breast cancer misdiagnosis can be devastating. If you have suffered due to misdiagnosis, you are entitled to claim compensation. Doing so not only helps you and your family access additional funds, it can also reveal the mistakes that were made in your care that led to misdiagnosis.

At Slater and Gordon, our medical negligence experts are on hand to help you claim the compensation you deserve. Our team is one of the best in country, and is highly experienced in dealing with negligent breast cancer claims. They can provide you with the best possible service, ensuring you get the best outcome in your case and the additional support you need to assist with your recovery.

To speak to a member of our team, contact us by phone on 0330 041 5869 or get in touch online.

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