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Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women: the stories of Ruth Picardie, Beth Wagstaff and Linda Riley

Leigh Day partner and specialist clinical negligence solicitor Frances Swaine acted for the families of Ruth Picardie and Beth Wagstaff

Posted on 22 October 2004

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Leigh Day & Co has worked in this area for some time now. In particular we have taken on cases of young women who were, for a number of reasons, either misdiagnosed, had a delayed diagnosis or who were given negligent advice because of prejudices within the health service against younger women getting breast cancer. If you need more information please contact Frances Swaine on 020 7650 1287.

Two of our most prominent cases, which helped to raise the awareness of young women with breast cancer, were the cases of Ruth Picardie and Beth Wagstaff. These two women were in their early thirties, with young families, when they were finally diagnosed with breast cancer. They both died because their cancer was not picked up early enough and tragically, their deaths could have been prevented.

The two women set up a charity, The Lavender Trust, to help other young women affected by breast cancer, because although their friendship was brief, the support they were able to give each other was invaluable. Ruth and Beth realised just how important this shared experience could be to other women of their age with breast cancer.

Case study: Beth Wagstaff

Beth had three young children and a successful career in local government when she found a small lump in her left breast. She was 32. After a visit to her GP she was referred to the Breast Unit at Guy’s Hospital. A needle biopsy and a mammogram were not performed although she did have an ultrasound scan.

Beth was basically fobbed off by the medical staff at the unit for over two years. In this time the lump had grown to the size of an egg and her nipple had begun to invert and weep. She finally forced them to carry out a mammogram and biopsy. Almost three years after she first noticed a lump, she was finally diagnosed with advanced cancer of the left breast.

Beth had all the treatment available including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a mastectomy. But after three years the cancer had spread to her liver and lungs. Beth died shortly after, aged 39, and acutely aware that an earlier diagnosis would have given her a longer life span.

The hospital admitted ‘breach of duty' in that their junior staff failed to refer her on to more senior colleagues. The claim against the hospital settled out of court.

Although compensation will never make up for the failures of the hospital in listening to her and diagnosing her cancer earlier, it did leave her husband and three children in a more secure financial position.

Case study: Ruth Picardie

Ruth was 30 when she discovered her lump. She was referred to Guy’s Hospital breast unit where she was given a fine needle biopsy and an ultrasound scan. In the analysis of the cells, the cytologist recommended that she have the lump removed because there were abnormal cells. However Ruth was never told this. Instead she was told that the lump was benign and she could have it removed, but that this was not necessary.

Ruth got on with her busy life as a successful journalist. She got married and shortly after had IVF treatment. She got pregnant quickly, the result of which was twins – Joe and Lola. She breast fed the twins for nine months and when she stopped, she noticed that the lump had got bigger. She also had painful lumps in her armpit.

Ruth was referred back to the hospital for further testing. It was just over two years since she had noticed the first lump when she was told that she had breast cancer and only a 50% chance of surviving for 5 years. Despite chemo- and radiotherapy, the cancer quickly spread to her bones, lungs, liver and brain. Ruth died less than a year after she was diagnosed. She was 33.

Had the hospital told her that the lump should have been removed, Ruth would have undergone surgery and the cancer would have been diagnosed two years earlier. She would have undergone additional treatment and she could have lived for considerably longer.

The hospital trust agreed an out of court settlement with Ruth’s family which provides some financial security for them and compensation their tragic loss.

Leigh Day partner Frances Swaine is the clinical negligence solicitor who represented the families of Beth Wagstaff and Ruth Picardie:

“For young women, getting a diagnosis of breast cancer is often more difficult. These cases have helped to raise the awareness of breast cancer in young women; GPs and hospitals have to take young women more seriously and the general public is also more aware. Hopefully now, women should always get a diagnosis one way or another.”

Case study: Linda Riley

Linda was 34 when she found a lump in her right breast. Her GP referred her to the Breast Clinic at the Princess Royal Hospital NHS Trust near Telford. Although the breast surgeon identified 'prominent lumpiness' he failed to carry out the recommended triple assessment. This involves an ultrasound scan for those under 35 or a mammogram for older women, a fine needle aspiration as well as a clinical examination.

On the basis of only a clinical examination, the surgeon diagnosed benign breast disease and Linda was sent away. She was seen a further four times over the next three years and despite blood stained discharge from her nipple and her insistence that the lump had grown, further investigations were still not carried out.

Finally nearly four years after she had originally raised the problem with her GP, she was given an ultrasound, mammogram and fine needle biopsy. They showed widespread cancer.

Linda had a mastectomy and the lymph nodes under her arm removed. She had radiotherapy and chemotherapy but in the knowledge that the cancer was already so advanced that the treatment was only going to slow down the spread of the disease rather than save her life.

The cancer spread to Linda’s spine causing two of her vertebrae to collapse. This gave her severe back pain. By the time she died, eighteen months after her diagnosis, she had lost virtually all of her mobility. Linda had to endure the emotional pain of knowing that she was going to die and leave behind her husband and her two young children, Simon and Francesca, who were aged 4 and 6 years at the time of her death.

The case was investigated by Frances Swaine and her assistant solicitor, Maria Panteli. Linda’s husband David and her two children received a large sum of compensation following court proceedings being served on the Hospital Trust.

Maria Panteli: "The facts of this case are devastating given that Linda had taken all the appropriate steps of going to see her GP about the lump and her GP making the necessary referrals. Further, Linda persisted in going back because of her continued concerns but very sadly the breast surgeon repeatedly failed to undertake further investigations until it was too late.

“Linda’s chances of survival would have been very different had her breast cancer been diagnosed and treated at an earlier stage. During the course of our investigations into this case, our expert breast surgeon highlighted the fact that clinical examination alone has a poor sensitivity for detecting breast cancer, particularly in young women who often present with asymmetric nodularity.”

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