Failure to Diagnose Cancer: Do I Have a Medical Malpractice Claim?

by John McKiggan

Highest Cancer rates in Canada

Nova Scotia has the highest cancer rates in the country. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, 40% of Canadian women and 45% of men will develop cancer during their lifetime. I have been asked to review dozens of cases where clients have suffered various forms of cancer which they believe went undiagnosed by their doctor.

What Questions Should You Ask?

So what kind of questions do you need to ask to know whether you have a medical malpractice claim for failure to diagnose your cancer?

When I review a client’s claim involving someone who was injured (or died) from cancer I need to know the answers to the following questions:

Does anyone in your family have a history of cancer?

In order to properly diagnose a patient, doctors must take a patient’s history. That includes details of any significant illnesses that may run in the patient’s family. A patient whose family members have been diagnosed with or died from cancer are at higher risk of developing cancer themselves.

Therefore, if you doctor knows that you have other family members who died from cancer (or failed to ask you about this issue) your doctor may have been negligent in failing to take a proper medical history.

Were you under the care of a doctor when you think your cancer should have been diagnosed?
Unless you were seeing a doctor on a regular basis during the time frame that you were exhibiting symptoms that should have led to the diagnosis of your cancer, it will be next to impossible to establish that your doctor was negligent.

In other words, if you didn’t see your doctor, how can your doctor be negligent in failing to diagnose your cancer?

Did you have any symptoms that should have warranted an x-ray?

Did you tell your doctor about any complaints or symptoms you were experiencing that should have led your doctor to request further follow-up tests that could have revealed your cancer?

What type of cancer were you diagnosed with?

This question is extremely important because there are certain types of cancer that are very treatable if they are caught early enough. In other words, if your cancer was diagnosed promptly, you may have been able to receive treatment that could have eliminated the cancer.

On the other hand, there are certain types of cancer that are almost invariably fatal. For example, by the time that a patient exhibits obvious symptoms of pancreatic cancer it is almost always too late to administer effective treatment.

What stage of cancer were you diagnosed with?

The stages of cancer are classified from stage 0 (being the least severe) to stage 4 (the most severe and deadly). If your cancer could have been diagnosed when it was in the earlier stages then it is possible that it could have been treated and eliminated.

How much time went by from the time you should have been diagnosed until the time a proper diagnosis was made?
This is one of the most important questions that we will need to answer in any case involving failure to diagnose cancer.

If a doctor fails to properly diagnose cancer but the negligence results in a delay of days or even weeks before treatment is administered, it is not likely that your medical negligence claim will be successful.

On the other hand, if the failure to diagnose results in a delay in treatment of months or years, it is far more likely that the patient will be able to successfully establish a claim for negligence.

Would the outcome be different?

Have you asked your cancer specialist (oncologist) if your treatment would be different, or your chances of recover better, if the cancer had been detected earlier?

Different types of cancer have different growth patterns and grow at different speeds. If you have a slow growing tumor, and made complaints that suggested the need for further diagnostic tests and x-rays, you may have the basis for a medical malpractice claim for failure to diagnose your cancer.

What is your prognosis?

What do the doctors think about your chances of survival and the treatment opinions that are available to you?

Are you a smoker?

This question is relevant for two reasons. Smokers are at an increased risk of developing lung cancer. That means that doctors should be looking for symptoms that may point to the possibility of lung cancer.

On the other hand, if you continued to smoke after being diagnosed, the defendant may argue that you decreased your chances of recovery.

What Happens Next?

After reviewing all of your medical records, x-rays, CAT scans and other relevant information we will need to have a medical expert review your records.

The medical expert will provide a medical-legal opinion on whether you doctor failed to meet the standard of care expected of a reasonably competent doctor and whether the breach of the standard of care caused or contributed to your cancer.

Only after all this is done will we know if you have reasonable grounds for a medical malpractice claim.

If you or a loved one have suffered injuries that you think may be due to medical malpractice you can contact me through this blog or by calling toll free in Atlantic Canada 1-877-423-2050 for a free copy of my book: The Consumer’s Guide to Medical Malpractice Claims in Canada: Why 98% of Canadian Medical Malpractice Victims Never Receive a Penny in Compensation.

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