Imagine a conversation between a patient and a physician along the following lines: Patient: “Doctor, I notice blood in my stool when I go to the bathroom.” Physician: “Don’t worry about it, you most likely just have hemorrhoids.”
Unfortunately, some time afterwards this person discovers that the bleeding was actually caused by a cancerous tumor in the colon. One of the types of lawsuits handled by a cancer lawyer are ones that concern colon cancer. One of the issues that most commonly arises is as a result of a doctor having reassured a patient that the blood they found in their stool was due simply to hemorrhoids when in reality the patient actually has colon cancer. What legal choices does the patient have in these circumstances?
Doctors generally advise that if an individual has rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, testing needs to be conducted to make sure the patient does not have colon cancer. The test that is most commonly used to rule out colon cancer is called a colonoscopy. This involves using a flexible scope with a camera on the end to examine the inside of the colon. If growths (polyps or tumors) are found, they can be biopsied and possibly removed during the procedure. The samples (biopsies) are then examined for the existence of cancer. If no cancer is found, then colon cancer can often be eliminated as the reason for the blood. However, all too often, an individual’s doctor will simply attribute the blood to hemorrhoids without referring the person to a specialistand without conducting any testing, for example , a colonoscopy, to rule out cancer.
Colon cancer is a disease that progresses over time. As it advances it becomes tougher to treat effectively. For example, when the disease is in stage 1 or stage 2, it is still contained inside the wall of the colon. Treatment for these stages generally involves surgery to take out the tumor and adjacent areas of the colon. Chemotherapy is often not part of the treatment of stage 1 and stage 2 unless it may be given to a person who is young as a precautionary measure. With surgery, the person with stage 1 or stage 2 has a good chance of still being alive at least 5 years after diagnosis. The relative 5-year survival rate is more than ninety percent for stage I and seventy three percent for stage II.
Once the cancer reaches stage 3, it has spread outside the colon. At this stage treatment calls for both surgery and chemotherapy (possibly with other medications as well). The relative 5-year survival rate for stage 3 is 53%. If it progress to stage 4, the relative 5-year survival rate is reduced to roughly 8%. Treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other medications may or may not still be effective. When treatment stops being effective, the disease becomes fatal. Roughly 48,000 individuals will die from colon cancer this year alone.
If the individual with rectal bleeding gets a colonoscopy and the tumor is discovered before it has spread to the lymph nodes or to other organs, it can often be taken out in the course of the colonoscopy if it is sufficiently small or by surgically extracting the part of the colon containing the tumor. Thus a delay in diagnosis and treatment that is long enough to allow the cancer to reach an advanced stage. This means the patient will have to undergo additional treatments and will have a drastically decreased likelihood of survival. Depending on the laws of the jurisdiction in which the doctor was responsible for the delay, this may give rise to a claim for medical malpractice, or in the most severe case, for wrongful death.