Failure to Diagnose Colon Cancer

Colon cancer is the third most common form of cancer diagnosed in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Even though colon cancer can be treated and even prevented if it’s detected early enough, it is nonetheless also the third most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the US in both men and women. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2021 there will be 104,270 new cases of colon cancer, and that there will be 52,880 deaths from colon cancer.

What Is Colon Cancer?

Also known as colorectal cancers, colon cancers and rectal cancers are the formation of cancerous tumors (uncontrolled cell growths) in the rectum and colon. The development of colon cancer often begins with the growth of pre-cancerous polyps; if these are identified early and removed, patients can avoid the development of cancer. Over the last several decades, colon cancer's death rate in the US has been declining steadily, a trend the American Cancer Society attributes in part to improved treatments, in part to the detection of pre-cancerous polyps via preventative screenings, and in part to the early detection and treatment of the cancer itself. The ACS does note, however, that while colon cancer death rates are declining, "deaths from colorectal cancer among people younger than 55 have increased 1% per year from 2008 to 2017.”

According to the American Cancer Society, common risk factors for colorectal cancers include being overweight or obese; lack pf physical activity; diets high in red meat or processed meat; low vitamin D levels; smoking; moderate to heavy alcohol intake; age; a personal history of adenomas; a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease; a family history of colorectal cancers or adenomas; inherited syndromes like Lynch syndrome; and even racial and ethnic backgrounds. In the US, the colorectal cancer incidence and mortality rates are highest among Black people; worldwide, Ashkenazi Jews have especially high incidence rates.

How Is Colon Cancer Diagnosed?

Common symptoms of colon cancer include weakness, fatigue, weight loss, abdominal pain and cramping, rectal bleeding, blood in stool, diarrhea, and constipation. As the American Cancer Society notes, colon cancers "often bleed into the digestive tract" and result in anemia, which is why blood tests can be a crucial screening mechanism—a low red blood cell count may be "the first sign of colorectal cancer." Some of these symptoms are also correlated with infections, hemorrhoids, or other bowel conditions like IBS; medical practitioners who fail to conduct proper screenings for colon cancer risk misdiagnosing the disease.

There are a few tests doctors perform to determine whether a patient has colon cancer. Fecal occult blood tests and fecal immunochemical tests involve the collection of stool samples to test for blood which may not be evident to the naked eye. A complete blood count can detect whether patients have low red blood cell counts. Liver enzyme blood tests can help detect whether colon cancer has spread to the liver. A blood test to check for tumor markers can detect whether colon cancer cells have released chemicals like carcinoembryonic antigens into the blood stream. The American Cancer Society cautions that tumor markers cannot be solely be relied upon to diagnose colon cancer, because they can "sometimes be normal in someone who has cancer and can be abnormal for reasons other than cancer." Instead, they are more commonly used to monitor patients who are already being treated.

Another diagnostic tool is the colonoscopy, in which a doctor extends a colonoscope—a tube with a camera on the end—into the patient's anus, then through the rectum and into the colon. A proctoscopy is a similar procedure in which a tube containing a camera is inserted through the anus into the rectum, allowing medical practitioners to detect and examine polyps or tumors. Both procedures can be used to take samples of tissue, which are then sent to a lab for testing. They can also be used to remove precancerous polyps.

Doctors also use imaging tests to detect colorectal cancers. These include CT scans; abdominal or endorectal ultrasounds; MRIs; chest x-rays; PET scans; and angiographies, or x-rays that specifically examine blood vessels, according to the ACS.

How Does Failure to Diagnose Colon Cancer Occur?

The misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis of colon cancer is relatively common in young people, according to a survey described in 2019 by NBC News. According to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance's, which conducted the survey, both patients and medical practitioners fail to understand that young people can develop colon cancer, with occurrence rates in people under 50 years of age increasing by 1.6% between 2009 and 2013. The survey found that 63% of respondents "delayed up to a year after first experiencing symptoms before they went to a doctor because they didn't suspect colon cancer," and more than two-thirds of respondents "saw at least two doctors before getting an accurate diagnosis," with some visiting up to four doctors. Diagnoses were often complicated by the vagueness of colon cancer symptoms, many of which are associated with other conditions. The survey's respondents described symptoms like constipation, rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, bloated stomachs and abdominal pain, and fatigue.

Other experts suggested that medical practitioners should be more aware of the possibility that younger patients have colorectal cancer, while young people should in turn be vigilant about possible symptoms, namely blood in stool. Experts suggested that the failure to diagnose colon cancer may occur when doctors, underrating the potential for young patients to develop colon cancer, fail to ask new patients about possible symptoms, or neglect to take a family history as part of the patient’s medical history. Then there are the factors that cause misdiagnoses in all manner of conditions: the misinterpretation of test results, the failure to order tests, and equipment errors, to name a few. Misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis are not necessarily malpractice; generally speaking, malpractice occurs when a doctor fails to uphold their duty of care in a way that another reasonably competent professional would not have failed under similar circumstances, causing the patient to suffer harm.

What Can I Do If a Doctor Failed to Diagnose My Colorectal Cancer?

If you or someone close to you have experienced negligent failure to diagnose colon cancer or rectal cancer, you may be entitled to recover damages. Proving medical malpractice can be complex and require expert witnesses, which is why you should be careful to retain the counsel of a knowledgeable, experienced lawyer. The medical malpractice attorneys at the Law Offices of Thomas L. Gallivan have deep experience holding medical practitioners accountable their negligence and ensuring victims receive the justice they deserve, not to mention the peace of mind they need as a case proceeds. Please contact our lawyers today to schedule a free consultation.

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