Misdiagnosis of Cancer

Cancer is difficult to diagnose by its very nature. There are literally hundreds of types. Many types of tumors are hidden from view and not obvious even to the patient until late in its progression. Pain is often a late symptom of cancers, so patients are not always alerted early by a pain symptom in the location. More common are various types of vague symptoms such as tiredness, feelings of unwell, and perhaps unexplained weight loss. But each type of cancer may have very different types of symptoms, and it is difficult to generalize a description of the symptoms of cancer.

Undiagnosed Cancer: Some cancers are more often overlooked, or delayed in their diagnosis. Some examples include:

  • Lung cancer. Often diagnosed later, after other more common causes of cough have been investigated.
  • Colon cancer (colorectal cancer). A deeply internal cancer by its nature, which can delay its diagnosis. Even if the tumor causes internal bleeding, the blood may not be immediately seen in the feces.
  • Breast cancer. Not always detected early, and there are various non-cancerous causes of breast complaints which may be initially diagnosed.
  • Lymphoma. Cancer of the lymph nodes. Various different types of lymphoma cause symptoms that are very similar to swollen lymph nodes, which are a symptom of many other conditions.
  • Leukemia. These are cancers of the blood cells, either the red blood cells or the white blood cells. This type of cancer is not a solid tumor. Some types of leukemia start with vague symptoms, and some types of leukemia are inherently chronic and may remain subclinical for long periods.
  • Skin cancer. The most common types of skin cancer are less commonly undiagnosed as they appear as visible symptoms on the skin. Nevertheless, these symptoms may be dismissed as moles, cysts, or other skin conditions. Melanoma is also a particularly problematic type of skin cancer.
  • Prostate cancer. A cancer of the prostate, a small internal organ in men, may go undetected. There is also a recent issue as to whether the use of PSA blood tests are useful in its diagnosis and management.
  • Pancreatic cancer. An internal organ cancer (of the pancreas) that is often not detected early, and may have progressed to liver cancer before it is diagnosed.
  • Ovarian cancer. An internal cancer in the female reproductive system, this cancer can be difficult to detect early.
  • Cervix cancer (uterine cancer). Less commonly undiagnosed since the advent of regular pap smear testing, this is nevertheless sometimes overlooked.

Rare Types of Cancer: There are many different types of cancer, literally hundreds of them. Some particular types have great difficulty with diagnosis. Examples include:

There are many other possibilities. Many types of rare cancers are difficult to diagnose, although thankfully they are also rare conditions.

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Misdiagnosis of Cancer

A biopsy is needed to diagnose oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Cells or tissues are removed from the oral cavity or oropharynx and viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. When the cells are cancer and the pathologist reports them as not being cancer, the cancer is misdiagnosed. Cancer is also misdiagnosed when the cells are not cancer and the pathologist reports there is cancer. When cancer is misdiagnosed, treatment that is needed may not be given or treatment may be given that is not needed.

Source: NCI (NIH)1

Misdiagnosis of Cancer

Some cancers never cause symptoms or become life-threatening, but if found by a screening test, the cancer may be treated. Finding these cancers is called overdiagnosis. It is not known if treatment of these cancers would help you live longer than if no treatment were given, and treatments for cancer, such as surgery and radiation therapy, may have serious side effects.

Source: NCI (NIH)2

Related Misdiagnosis Issues

Complex diagnosis issues or misdiagnosis may occur with conditions such as:

Misdiagnosis Articles

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  1. Source: NCI (NIH): cancer.gov/ types/ head-and-neck/ patient/ oral-screening-pdq
  2. ibid.

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Note: This site is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. See your doctor or other qualified medical professional for all your medical needs.