How Often Is Cancer Misdiagnosed, and Why Does It Happen?


How often is cancer misdiagnosed? Cancer misdiagnoses happen more frequently than doctors and hospitals like to admit. Since cancer sits in second place among the leading causes of death in the U.S., a misdiagnosis can have serious consequences, including premature or preventable death.

Misdiagnoses arise for many reasons. When a misdiagnosis results from an unreasonable medical error, patients or their families may have grounds to pursue a medical malpractice claim against anyone responsible for the mistake.

The Impact of a Cancer Misdiagnosis

Cancer misdiagnoses can take a few forms. Each of these forms has different consequences and produces unique losses. Some examples of possible misdiagnoses include:

Failure to Diagnose

A common type of misdiagnosis comes when a patient has cancer, and a doctor or lab fails to diagnose it. As a result, the patient does not receive treatment in time to prevent the cancer from worsening. Sometimes, the patient dies without ever receiving a correct diagnosis.

Delayed Diagnosis

Another common misdiagnosis happens when doctors correctly diagnose the cancer but only after an unreasonable delay. Treatment may still be an option after a delayed diagnosis. However, patients might face longer, more stressful, and more radical treatment.

For example, an early diagnosis might have allowed chemotherapy and radiation treatment, while a delay may mean surgery. Since early detection is critical to cancer treatment, a delayed diagnosis has life-and-death consequences. Delayed treatment might not cure the cancer, and the patient may die.

Incorrect Diagnosis

This happens when a doctor provides a diagnosis — but a wrong one. For instance, a doctor might incorrectly diagnose colon cancer as irritable bowel syndrome.

The effects of an incorrect diagnosis are similar to those of a delayed diagnosis. The biggest difference is that in a delayed diagnosis, the patient receives no treatment. In an incorrect diagnosis, the patient receives the wrong treatment.

How Often Is Cancer Misdiagnosed?

Based on public statistics, researchers have developed wide-ranging estimates about the scope of medical error rates. A Johns Hopkins study named medical errors as the third most common cause of death in the United States. Counter-studies have disputed this claim, suggesting the scope of the problem to be significant, but much smaller.

How often is cancer misdiagnosed? One of the most comprehensive studies of cancer diagnosis errors was conducted by the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine (SIDM). This study focused on the “big three” medical conditions that cause the greatest harm when misdiagnosed: major vascular events, infections, and cancers.

According to the SIDM study, cancer is misdiagnosed over 11% of the time, making it the most misdiagnosed condition of the big three. Cancer is also the most harmful, with over 6% of patients suffering some degree of harm.

However, different types of cancers have different error rates. Some misdiagnosis rates reported by the SIDM study include:

  • Lung cancer at 22.5%
  • Melanoma at 13.6%
  • Colorectal cancer at 9.6%
  • Breast cancer at 8.9%
  • Prostate cancer at 2.4%

Lung cancer misdiagnoses were also the most consequential. Nearly 14% of lung cancer patients experienced some harm resulting from a doctor’s mistaken diagnosis.

Common Causes of Cancer Misdiagnoses

You might think that diagnosis errors require a perfect storm of circumstances. But many often result from simple mistakes. Some common causes of misdiagnosis include:

Diagnostic Errors

Some mistakes happen when gathering the information to make a diagnosis. Such as:

  • Mixed-up patient records or test specimens
  • Incorrectly conducted tests
  • Contaminated test samples

When a doctor makes a diagnosis using bad information, you often get bad analyses. The liability for these errors in a cancer misdiagnosis lawsuit can fall on hospitals, laboratories, and even the doctor’s staff.

Physician Negligence

Physician negligence happens when doctors fail to exercise the reasonable care expected of healthcare professionals. This standard, also called the professional standard of care, applies to any physician involved in the doctor-patient relationship, including radiologists and specialists.

Some examples of physician negligence that leads to diagnostic errors include:

  • Failing to order relevant tests
  • Conducting the test incorrectly
  • Misreading the test report
  • Delay in reading testing reports
  • Misunderstanding the significance of anomalous test results
  • Neglecting to refer you to specialists for further consultations and testing

Negligence depends on the circumstances. When you have serious symptoms that might indicate cancer, doctors are expected to act with urgency to correctly diagnose the condition so you can decide whether to start treatment.

Pursuing Compensation for Misdiagnosed Cancer and Steps to Take if You Suspect Misdiagnosis

Medical malpractice cases begin with an insurance claim. A claim has to be filed with the insurer for each healthcare provider who contributed to the error.

Your lawyer will then try to negotiate a settlement to cover your losses. These include your medical bills, lost income, diminished earning capacity, out-of-pocket expenses, and pain and suffering. If the insurer refuses to settle, the lawyer can file a lawsuit. To prove liability, you will need expert witnesses to testify about the unreasonableness of the provider’s error.

When you suspect misdiagnosis, you should gather your medical records and get a second opinion. If the second opinion determines the original diagnosis was incorrect, it’s time to consider visiting a lawyer.


Some answers to frequently asked questions include:

What Happens if My Loved One Dies From a Misdiagnosis?

You can pursue a wrongful death claim when your loved one dies from medical malpractice.

What Damages Can I Get for a Misdiagnosis?

You can recover both economic and non-economic damages, including the cost of the correct medical treatment and reimbursement for incorrect treatment.

Do I Have a Claim if the Doctor Eventually Gives a Correct Diagnosis?

Yes, you do have a claim for losses from the original incorrect diagnosis. For example, you can seek compensation if your odds of survival dropped due to the delay.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Lawyer

How often is cancer misdiagnosed? Unfortunately, it is a relatively common occurrence — and it can come with drastic consequences. Contact The Moore Law Firm after a misdiagnosis to learn about your right to financial compensation.

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If you have been injured or have lost a loved one as a result of another person's negligence, you deserve to be fully compensated for your losses. The simple fact is that you should not be forced to pay the price for another person's careless or reckless actions.