Sep 23 2008

Have You Been Diagnosed with Cancer? Are You Sure the Diagnosis is Correct?

When I received my cancer diagnosis in 2004, and proved I didn’t really have cancer at all, it was the first time I had ever heard or known about that form of misdiagnosis.

It’s backwards from those we hear about more frequently.  Most of the time we hear about a “missed diagnosis” — meaning someone has a disease or condition and it is not diagnosed — and then does not get treated.  In the case of a cancer, of course, no treatment may mean the difference between life and death.

This summer we were able to prove that two other people, Heather and Daniel, had been diagnosed with cancers they did not have, almost identical to my own misdiagnosis.  In our cases, we were told we had something we didn’t.  Missed — yes — but backwards from the more usual case described above.

And it seems another person has suffered this fate as well — as written about in today’s Post-Tribune (from northwest Indiana — not far from Chicago) — a gentleman named Albert Velasquez Jr. was diagnosed in 2003 with lung cancer.  He did exactly what he was supposed to do — went for a second opinion — and the second lab also told him he had lung cancer….

Except that he didn’t have it.

As near as I can tell, he never received treatment for it either.  About three months passed between his first tests and the ultimate discovery of his misdiagnosis…. and if you substitute his name and type of cancer for mine, we could be telling the same story, except for two distinct points:

1.  That his misdiagnosis was a result of switching lab specimens. This happens WAY too frequently.  Lab techs are in a big hurry and swap one person’s samples and name with another.  I suppose they catch themselves when something like this happens (or if a woman is told she has prostate cancer?) — but studies tell us it happens daily.  About 1% of them lead to dangerous treatment mistakes, according to a pathologist at the University of Pittsburgh. But he also pointed out that “you wouldn’t want to have 1% of airplanes crashing.”

2.  Albert Velasquez has filed a lawsuit. I did not.

His suit is asking for damages to cover the extra costs needed from the misdiagnosis, and proof that the right person was eventually informed of his misdiagnosis.

So what can we patients do with this information?

I hope it will show you that when mistakes are made, it becomes incumbent upon us — the patients who pay for the mistakes — to figure out the real truth.  We need to trust our intuition, pull out all the stops, and keep following the evidence to prove — or disprove — our diagnosis.

Here are some tools:

  1. Learn about the concept of differential diagnosis — and keep asking questions.
  2. Make sure you get at least one second opinion (even a third, if necessary, just like Mr. Velasquez did).

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, then yes, there is a better chance you do have it than don’t.  But why on earth would you risk those horribly invasive treatments like chemotherapy or radiation if, for want of another test or opinion, you don’t have it?

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