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Doctors are failing to examine some women with breast cancer symptoms

Maria Panteli, specialist cancer claims solicitor, comments on latest reports of negligence by doctors

Posted on 29 October 2012

Maria Panteli, a clinical negligence solicitor with a special interest in breast cancer cases, comments on a recent report in the Telegraph that states that  1 in 10 medical negligence claims involving cancer are from women with breast cancer and that doctors are failing to examine women and are not following up on abnormal test results.

Breast cancer is the second biggest cause of death from cancer for women in the UK after lung cancer.  Around 1,000 women die of breast cancer every month in the UK.

Screening, early diagnosis and treatment can significantly reduce the number of deaths from breast cancer.  Delays in diagnosis or misdiagnosis can have a devastating impact on a patient’s treatment options and ultimately their chance of survival. 

It is vital that patients are referred for investigation as soon as possible.  NICE has published clinical guidelines for suspected cancer (Referral guidelines for suspected cancer).  The guidelines say that a patient who presents with symptoms which suggest  breast cancer should be referred to a team specialising in the management of breast cancer.  In patients presenting with symptoms and/ or signs suggestive of breast cancer, investigation prior to referral is not recommended.

The guidelines provide referral timelines which are as follows:

  • Immediate:  an acute admission or referral occurring within a few hours, or even more quickly if necessary;
  • Urgent:  the patient is seen within the national target for urgent referrals (currently two weeks);
  • Non-urgent:  all other referrals.

Once a patient is referred to the breast clinic, various investigation tests are carried out and it is important that the results of tests are correctly interpreted and followed up if necessary.

Leigh Day’s experience in breast cancer cases

Medical negligence lawyers at Leigh Day have unrivalled experience in bringing successful claims for compensation for people whose cancer has been misdiagnosed, mistreated or missed.

Maria Panteli secured a settlement of £300,000 for the husband of a woman whose breast cancer diagnosis was delayed by more than a year, leading to her premature death.  Maria’s client originally went to see her GP in June 2003 after discovering a lump in her left breast.  Although the GP did refer her to a breast specialist, the breast specialist did not adequately investigate the lump.

The breast consultant organised a mammogram, ultrasound and a fine needle aspiration.  The sample was sent for analysis.  The cytologist (who is someone who specialises in diagnosing diseases by studying tissues and cells) said that, although he could not identify any cancer cells in the sample, the sample taken may not in fact represent the actual lump which could be felt on examination because it was too small.  The radiologist also raised concerns about the imaging and reported them as being of “uncertain significance”.

Despite this, our client was advised by the breast consultant that none of the tests showed any signs of cancer.  Her breast cancer was in fact diagnosed in September 2004 but, by this time, her breast cancer had spread to other parts of her body and she died in February 2008.

This is a tragic case as our client’s premature death could have been avoided had she been diagnosed and treated sooner.  Although the appropriate investigations were carried out, the results were not acted upon.  Triple assessment (clinical assessment, imaging and cytology) is the key in breast cancer to establishing a diagnosis.  Triple assessment is effective as each test is considered separately.  However, it relies on all of the investigations and each investigation has its own value.  None can be overridden unless a specific cause can be identified on biopsy for the clinical, mammographic and ultrasonographic findings.  Unless all three assessments are definitively benign, further investigations are required.  In our client’s case, none of the investigations indicated that the lump was definitely benign.

Frances Swaine, a medical negligence partner, acted for the family of Ruth Picardie, a young mother and successful journalist, and for another young woman Beth Wagstaff both of whom died from breast cancer. The surgeon who misdiagnosed Picardie’s cancer was struck off in January this year after an assessment panel of the General Medical Council said that the surgeon, Puvaneswary Markandoo, lacked the competence of a newly-qualified doctor. 

The firm has also brought successful claims on behalf of people with bladder cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, sarcoma cancer and squamous cell cancer.

To speak to one of our specialist clinical negligence team members about a possible claim relating to cancer please contact us now for a free and friendly discussion on 020 7650 1200.