Cervical Cancer Misdiagnosis – A Deadly Mistake

April 21, 2016
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In 2015, cervical cancer killed almost 4,100 women in the United States. Although great strides have been made in diagnosing and treating the disease early, resulting in a far lower death rate than in the past, the truth is that many women are dying needlessly or undergoing much more invasive treatment for cervical cancer today because of mistakes due to medical malpractice.

Cervical cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix, the lower part of the uterus.

In 2015, cervical cancer killed almost 4,100 women in the United States. Although great strides have been made in diagnosing and treating the disease early, resulting in a far lower death rate than in the past, the truth is that many women are dying needlessly or undergoing much more invasive treatment for cervical cancer today because of mistakes due to medical malpractice.

Cervical cancer starts in the cells lining the cervix, the lower part of the uterus.

  • Normal cells of the cervix can gradually develop pre-cancerous changes that later turn malignant.
  • These changes can be detected by the Pap test and be treated to prevent cancer from developing.

The American Cancer Society estimates about 12,900 new cervical cancer diagnoses were made in the U.S. last year, with far more pre-cancerous conditions diagnosed than invasive cervical cancer.

In the past, cervical cancer was one of the most frequent causes of cancer death for American women, but the cervical cancer death rate has decreased by more than half over the past 30 years. Increased use of the Pap test is the main reason for this improvement. It can find changes in cells of the cervix before cancer develops or find it in an early, more treatable stage.

Cervical cancer is a case study in the differences between the American health care system and those of the developing world.

  • While most American women have access to quality health care, the developing world is where about 80% of all cervical cancer cases occur.
  • It is the leading cause of cancer death among women in developing countries, killing about 190,000 each year.
  • In the U.S. there are 19 other cancers that kill more women than cervical cancer (lung cancer being the leading one).

While testing can be the key to saving lives, mistakes related to testing can result in serious harm or even death. A diagnosis may be delayed and treatment made more difficult if a gynecologist, cytologist or pathologist fails to perform appropriate screening tests, accurately interpret test results or take the right steps if cervical cancer is suspected.

Though not all medical mistakes rise to the level of medical malpractice, any number of failures by a medical professional can lead to serious consequences for the patient:

  • Failing to identify a malignant mass in the cervix during a routine examination
  • Failing to test for cervical cancer if a patient has symptoms consistent with cervical cancer
  • Failing to perform a Pap test
  • Failing to have a biopsy performed if a physical examination of the cervix and/or Pap test results are abnormal
  • Misinterpreting Pap test or biopsy results
  • Failing to react to a biopsy finding that cancer or a pre-cancerous condition is present, including failing to follow-up with the patient
  • Failing to suggest appropriate treatment options to the patient
  • Acting negligently while treating the cancer after it was diagnosed.

Most medical professionals act responsibly; and if a patient is proactive, appropriate tests done properly can save lives. Regrettably, for too many women things do go wrong, medical malpractice occurs and the patient pays the price.

James C. DeZao is an attorney who represents plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases, including those involving misdiagnoses, in New Jersey.