When doctors delay or misdiagnose patients
In June 1998, three years after my stage 2a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, I was sitting in my wheeled office chair. I pushed off with my left foot to access a file cabinet. “OUCH! That hurt!” My hip screamed. I got up and walked around, trying to shake it off.
But I couldn’t shake it off. The pain worsened. Over a few weeks, it got to the point where I could barely walk.
In the meantime, I had a follow up oncology appointment with a “fill in” oncologist as my other oncologist moved away and her replacement was yet to arrive.
Dr. R looked at my lab results, saying nothing about his impressions of those results, and gave me the side-eye. I told him about the pain in my hip and at the time I thought it might be getting better. Side-eye #2. No communication.
I thought “This doctor has the bedside manner of a walnut.”
I was offered prescription strength acetaminophen and told to see him again in 6-8 weeks. No explanation as to why this early return appointment.
I hobbled back to my next appointment with Dr. R. He said he wanted me to do x-rays, bone and CT scans. He didn’t really explain why.
It took a few months to get all the scans taken, compared and analyzed. This was 1998. The Dark Ages of diagnostics – there were not many pieces of imaging equipment, imaging sessions took longer and that caused major scheduling delays.
A few weeks after the results were in, I met with Dr. R again. He finally told me that scans found “suspicious lesions in my left ischium” and that I needed a bone biopsy to confirm. But they didn’t know how to approach the biopsy so he would need to consult with various people.
He never said “cancer.” But I knew that is exactly what it was.
It took 6 weeks to receive a call to schedule the outpatient bone biopsy. I tearfully called the scheduling department every few days asking for an update.
My hip injury happened late June and it was now Thanksgiving. I’d invited my entire extended family over for a Thanksgiving Feast.
It took over five months to finally receive my diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer to the bone. Therapy started the week of Christmas.
When I think back on this, I wonder if Dr. R was concerned that he might frighten me if he shared his suspicions. What he didn’t know was that I was already frightened, frightened to the point of not saying or asking anything. That is totally unlike me. But he didn’t know that.
I’ve shared my stories with others living with Metastatic Breast Cancer. They are not shocked. They nod their heads and say “OK. This is what happened to me before I was finally diagnosed.”
Then my jaw drops. Every time.
When presenting with symptoms of breast cancer or metastatic breast cancer–even for those who had early stage disease–these are things patients have told me:
Doctor comments heard before being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer:
- “You’re too young to have breast cancer.”
- “That’s just an infection. Happens all the time during lactation.”
- “You have no family history of breast cancer and don’t have any risk factors. You’re fine.”
- “Breast cancer doesn’t hurt.”
- “You have no lump on the mammogram. Therefore, you have no breast cancer.”
- “You just have lumpy breasts.”
Doctor comments heard before being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer:
- “Everyone starts feeling like that at age (fill in the blank). We’re all getting older.”
- “You probably have colon issues. Try this laxative.”
- “Your back hurts because you garden so much.”
- “Maybe your abdominal pain is due to your diet.”
- “It’s not that unusual to feel dizzy from time to time.”
The bottom line? Patients hearing comments like this are often told to wait six months because the symptoms will probably go away. “This pill can help you manage those symptoms.”
But the symptoms don’t always go away. Now the patient starts questioning their doctor and trust in their doctor wanes. Many patients start “doctor shopping.” They want to find someone who can help them, not dismiss them.
My friend Lynda sums it up like this: “We are missed, then dismissed. But we must persist.”
Missed or delayed diagnosis isn’t common to breast cancer alone. Some illness are difficult to diagnose. Doctor’s aren’t perfect. They practice medicine. That doesn’t mean they’re always good at it. My husband reminds me that “50% of all doctors practicing today were in the bottom half of their graduating classes.”
But doctors can learn and the best ones learn something new every day. Often, they learn from their patients.
Doctors can’t learn if they never see the patient again after misdiagnosing them. Or if they never look to see what eventually happened to that patient. They don’t have time for that.
So how can patients help? Send an email to the original doctor telling them what happened? Keep seeing the same doctor over and over until they are properly diagnosed or referred to the right specialist? Patients don’t have time for that.
I wish doctors would diagnose themselves.
Are they a problem solver or do they go by a cookbook?
If they haven’t seen a certain condition before, why might they assume that condition doesn’t exist and couldn’t exist in this particular patient?
“Never seen it before so it doesn’t exist.”
We don’t know if delayed diagnosis has any impact on MBC overall survival. But we do know that it has a tremendous impact on mental well-being, the ability to focus at work, our relationships with our friends, families and co-workers among other things. Once we know what’s happening, we can start finding solutions and acting.
I’m hoping new technologies like liquid biopsy may lead us to better and faster diagnostics.
But in the meantime “Here, take this pill.”