Are Some Cancer Compensation Claims More Common Than Others?

*Updated 11 October 2019* The BBC are reporting today that one in four patients with secondary breast cancer did not receive their diagnosis until they had visited their GP at least three times. 

Breast Cancer Now, who conducted the survey, have called the figure “unacceptable”. You can read more about the warning signs of secondary breast cancer on their website.

Sadly, most of us have or will be touched by cancer during our lives. However, Cancer Research UK have suggested that with lifestyle changes, 4 in 10 cases could have been prevented. So it comes as no surprise that we encounter many cancer compensation claims.

What are the most common types of cancer?

There are many different types of cancer, but some are more common than others. The most common types are:

1) Breast cancer

The most common is breast cancer. There are around 55,000 new cases in the UK each year among women and a small number among men. Most people (around 78%) survive their cancer, but around 11,500 do not. 23% of cases are thought to be preventable by not smoking, not drinking too much alcohol, exercising and controlling weight.

2) Prostate cancer

The second most common is prostate cancer. This is a male disease (only men have a prostate) with around 48,000 new cases each year. Often prostate cancer is not particularly aggressive. It affects many older men. 84% of men survive their cancer (around 11,600 die from it). It is much more common to die with it than die of it. Unfortunately, it is not thought possible to prevent prostate cancer developing.

3) Lung cancer

Lung cancer is also quite common and the number of new diagnoses is similar to prostate cancer at around 47,000 per year. The survival rate is not so good. Around 35,600 people die from the condition each year. Lung cancer is often linked to smoking and 79% of cases are thought to be preventable.

4) Bowel cancer

The fourth most common cancer is bowel cancer. Around 42,000 cases are diagnosed each year. 57% survive, but around 16,400 die. Around half the cases of bowel cancer are thought to be preventable. Things that increase the risk include eating too much red or processed meat, eating too little fibre, being overweight, smoking, drinking alcohol and a lack of exercise.

Between them, these four cancers are responsible for nearly half all cancer deaths each year – around 45%.

5) Melanoma

Melanoma is a form of skin cancer. Around 16,000 people are diagnosed each year. Most – 90%  – . But it claims about 2,280 people each year.

Melanoma is often caused by exposure to ultraviolet rays of the sun, so the risk of melanoma is a good reason to keep covered up and not to sunbathe when the weather is hot. Avoiding exposure to the sun would probably prevent 86% of cases.

Cancers are generally labelled according to where they occur – breast, prostate, lung, etc. – but within these groups are many different types of cancer. Although they are labelled in the same way, they will develop differently and respond to different treatment.

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What are the most common types of claim?

According to an article by The Independent about misdiagnosed cancer statistics, a report by the All.Can cancer initiative found that four out of ten people with cancer in the UK are misdiagnosed at least once before the correct diagnosis is made. Furthermore, one in five of UK patients who survived said they waited more than six months to get a correct diagnosis.

Cancers are often diagnosed later in the UK than in our mainland European neighbours. There are probably many reasons for this. One of them may be the patients here go to see their doctors slightly later than in some other countries. This is not the fault of doctors.

Where the diagnosis of cancer has been delayed by medical mistakes, people may be able to bring claims. In our experience, the most common types of successful claims are for :

1) Breast cancer
2) Bowel cancer
3) Cervical cancer
4) Melanoma

These are not the same as the most common types of cancer. There are two reasons for this.

The first is to do with how cancers present. Some present early in ways that can be relatively easily identified. If doctors miss those features, their care may fall below an acceptable standard. Others are harder to identify and missing them is therefore more excusable.

The second is some cancers are more aggressive than others. Missing an aggressive cancer is more likely to make a difference than missing a slow-developing one. Some mistakes are therefore more likely to cause harm than others.

This is why, although prostate cancer is quite common, there aren’t many successful prostate cancer claims. Prostate cancer often develops so slowly that diagnosing it late may not cause harm. In fact, many prostate cancers are not treated at all.

What does it take for a claim to be successful?

It takes two things for a cancer compensation claim to be successful.

1. Breach of duty – a mistake

The first is that a doctor has done something which amounts to a ‘breach of duty’. This is a mistake that no responsible doctor of that type would have made. For instance, if a GP fails to refer a patient for investigations and there is no responsible body of GPs who would have made that mistake, that will be a breach of duty.

This is not the same as getting a diagnosis wrong. Practicing medicine is difficult and doctors have to make judgment calls all the time. Unfortunately, some of those calls will turn out to be wrong. Everyone will get it wrong sometimes. The question is whether they did something no responsible doctor could have done.

To work out whether a mistake is a breach of duty, expert evidence from a doctor practicing that type of medicine is required.

2. That the mistake has caused harm

It is not enough to show a breach of duty. Many mistakes fortunately cause no harm at all. It must be shown that the breach of duty caused harm. Judges call this ‘causation’.

Showing harm can be particularly difficult in cancer claims. Again, there are two reasons for this.

The first is that cancer is a serious disease and it causes harm anyway. It is important to show the harm would have been less had the cancer been diagnosed earlier.

Cancers are usually classified by clinical ‘stage’. This involves considering the size of the tumour, how far it has grown through other structures, whether it has spread to the lymph system, and whether it has spread to other organs. Showing harm usually means showing that the cancer progressed at least from one clinical stage to another. This requires complex expert evidence.

The second reason is that experts have to work backwards to try to work out what stage a cancer had reached when the mistake was made.

Imagine a woman who has breast cancer. Her GP makes a mistake and fails to refer her for investigations. Because there were no investigations, there is no evidence as to the stage of her cancer. One year later she is diagnosed with late stage breast cancer and doctors think she is unlikely to survive. How do we know what her stage would have been a year before? Would she probably have survived or not?

Experts have to try to work out various things about her cancer – how aggressive it is, how long it would have taken to double in size, whether it would already have spread to the lymph system, and whether it would have spread elsewhere. This is complex science and often involves looking carefully at published research.

Common mistakes in diagnosing cancer

There are some common mistakes which give rise to negligence claims.

The most common one is probably GPs failing to follow guidelines to refer people when they have symptoms. There are many National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines which tell GPs what signs and symptoms should make them suspect cancer and refer patients to specialists. Failing to follow those guidelines may cause delays in diagnosis.

Another mistake is failing to interpret investigations correctly. There have been cases where breast mammograms or chest x-rays have been said to be normal when in fact they show tumours. In other cases, pathologists (doctors who look at cells under a microscope) have said cells were normal when in fact they showed melanoma or cervical cancer.

Making Cancer Compensation Claims

Delayed diagnosis of cancer can cause serious harm and people may want to bring claims for damages to help them or their family. Because these claims are so complex, it is important to have solicitors with the right specialist experience, not just in medical negligence claims, but in cancer claims. At Enable Law, we have just that.

If you would like to learn more about breast cancer claims, lung cancer misdiagnosis settlements, or anything else to do with cancer compensation claims, please do get in touch with our friendly and experienced team.