There are a vast array of tests and procedures done to determine if the symptoms a patient is presenting with is, in fact, a type of cancer, but in the strata of difficult to detect cancers, some remain more challenging to identify than others.
In fact, one study shows six out of 11 types of cancer were diagnosed later in women than men because women’s symptoms are more likely to be considered emotional. These six cancers include colorectal, gastric, head and neck, lung, and lymphoma.
While women are more likely to be dismissed and misdiagnosed, men are 20 percent more likely to get cancer.
At the end of the day, cancer goes undetected in patients for many different reasons and none of those reasons should be physician negligence. Yet, the reality is negligence is far too common.
With cancer already being difficult to detect, physicians need to be diligent in screening for, following up on, and correctly treating cancer patients, whether they practice as a general practitioner or specialize in a specific area of medicine.
Why is Cancer Difficult to Diagnose?
One of the major reasons correctly diagnosing cancer is difficult is simply because it often presents as common ailments, such as a cough or stomach pain.
Additionally, cancer cells are very small and there is not yet technology that is efficient in detecting them. A Positron Emission Tomography (PET), a diagnostic imaging tool used by oncologists, attempts to show the metabolic activity of cancer cells, but requires a large enough amount of cellular activity and is not always effective.
Finding cancer cells can be equated to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Another barrier to detection is that some forms of the disease are so incredibly rare that they receive minimal attention and may require numerous physician visits and misdiagnosis before being properly identified.
When a diagnosis is finally made, treatments may be limited since rare cancers receive fewer investments that could aid in the development of effective treatment methods since they affect few people
Often by the time these cancers have been properly diagnosed, they have reached a higher stage—making them even harder to treat. It also makes mistakes in treating rare cancers more likely to occur.
Sometimes, even with more common cancers, figuring out what is cancer and what is not can be difficult.
Determining if a cell or group of cells is cancerous or not is not a straightforward process. This leads to pathologists seeing cancer where there’s none, or more dangerously seeing none, where cancer is indeed present.
What Happens When Cancer is Not Diagnosed Early?
If missed, cancer has the opportunity to grow and spread. While some cancers are more aggressive than others, missed or incorrect diagnosis often results in poorer outcomes.
Undetected cancer cells have the opportunity to group together and form tumors. A tumor can grow so large that it impacts organ function and causes bleeding or pain.
These tumors and cells also have a chance to spread throughout the body—a process known as metastasis. Large tumors and metastasized tumors are generally more difficult to treat, making early detection critically important.
Unfortunately, it may be only after the cancer has grown or spread that symptoms start to occur.
Metastasis occurs when a cancer spreads to new areas of the body via the lymphatic system or bloodstream.
The cancer that forms is the same as the original cancer, regardless of which organ or tissues it develops in. For example, breast cancer that breaks away from the original tumor, and grows in the lungs, is referred to as “metastatic breast cancer to the lungs.”
Often, metastasis is painful and results in new symptoms, but it is possible for the cancer to remain asymptomatic even as it travels to new organs or tissues, which means it may do even more damage before it’s found.
The difficulty in finding cancer cells not only presents delays in diagnosis, it can also create challenges to treatments. Cancer therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy are designed to target and kill cancerous cells in the midst of division.
However, some cancerous cells lie dormant for periods of time, allowing them to survive several rounds of treatment. This is why cancer can return years after an initial struggle with the disease.
Three Most Difficult Cancers to Diagnose
Nearly seven percent of all cancer deaths are due to pancreatic cancer, and one in eight men will be diagnosed at some point in their lives. It’s safe to say more frequent and more effective cancer screening strategies are needed.
There are, however, developing technologies emerging, such as molecular blood tests and other novel approaches that could expand early detection efforts to include some typically unscreened tumor types.
The reason pancreatic cancer is so difficult to detect is because it’s internal, initially painless, and generally asymptomatic. The exception being when the cancer forms close to the bile duct, which leads to blockage and jaundice relatively early in the course of the disease.
Treatment, in a fortunate minority, is a very invasive surgery. For those whose cancer is detected later, it is often too late and treatment, such as chemotherapy, is primarily used to temporarily relieve symptoms rather than cure the disease.
Kidney cancer can be hard to detect because patients are not usually tested unless they experience symptoms, which often include lower back pain, chronic fatigue, unexplained weight loss, and blood in the urine.
For those with preexisting conditions that put them at higher risk to contract kidney cancer, a physician may choose to recommend regular diagnostic imaging, such as computerized tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for kidney tumors.
Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
Three-quarters of lung cancers are diagnosed after they’ve already spread. Often patients do not become symptomatic until cancer has already grown to a size that causes a cough, pneumonia, shortness of breath, and has already metastasized.
Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCL) is the most common type of lung cancer, yet it’s difficult to detect early because early-stage lung cancer often has no symptoms and cannot be detected with a chest X-ray.
Which Tests are Used to Diagnose Cancers?
From in-person evaluations to sample collection, there are a few approaches that a physician uses to test a patient for cancers.
The initial step in detecting cancer is a physical exam. During this exam a physician may feel the affected area for lumps or other abnormalities, such as changes in skin color, the enlargement of an organ, or other signs that may indicate the presence of cancer.
Laboratory tests, such as urine and blood tests, may help identify abnormalities caused by cancer. When testing people for leukemia, a common blood test called complete blood count may reveal an unusual number or type of white blood cells.
Imaging allows your doctor to examine your bones and internal organs in a noninvasive way and includes computerized tomography (CT) scans, bone scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scans, ultrasounds, and X-ray, among others.
During a biopsy, your doctor collects a sample of cells for testing by a lab. There are several ways of collecting a sample. Which biopsy procedure is right for you depends on the suspected type of cancer and its location. In most situations, a biopsy is the only way to definitively make a diagnosis.
In the lab, doctors look at cell samples under the microscope. Normal cells look uniform with similar sizes and orderly organization. Cancer cells look less orderly with varying sizes and without apparent organization. Different cellular formations will indicate different types of cancer.
Cancer Diagnosis Delay
Cancer can be difficult to diagnose, in any form, especially in their early stages or if particularly rare. There are cancers that have serious symptoms, symptoms that can mimic other illnesses, or are all together asymptomatic. To make matters more complicated, there are symptoms that differ between females and males.
The result of a delayed diagnosis can be severe or even deadly, regardless of who is affected. If you feel that your physician missed a cancer diagnosis, which caused a delay in treatment, there may be grounds for a medical malpractice case.
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