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Breast Cancer Misdiagnosis Can Be Deadly

According to a Johns Hopkins University study, 40,000 to 80,000 hospitalized patients die due to diagnostic errors each year. Misdiagnoses are also the leading cause of malpractice suits - accounting for nearly 40 percent of malpractice claims nationwide - and cost insurers about $300,000 for each claim.

Unfortunately, misdiagnoses are far from rare. Studies put the rate for some diseases at around 40 percent, and in acute care settings such as intensive care units and emergency rooms, they range from 20 to 40 percent.

Doctors Can Miss Breast Cancer

According to recent studies, breast cancer ranks as one of the diseases that doctors most often miss. Part of the problem, says Dr. Katherine Lee, a staff physician at the Cleveland Clinic's Breast Center, is that symptoms of breast cancer resemble those of other diseases, "and it often takes a well-trained specialist to detect early manifestations" of the illness. "They estimate you have to read several hundred mammograms a month," she adds, to accurately spot a cancerous growth. 

Protect Yourself

What can you do to minimize the chances of a breast-cancer misdiagnosis? Here are some tips:

  • Look for symptoms yourself. A lump is one of the most identifiable sign, but also check for others: noticeable redness and heat from the breast, tenderness, swelling, and dimpling and flakiness in the skin on the areola and nipple. Underarm lumps, too, can be a danger sign.
  • Know whether you are in an at-risk group. If you are over 50, and have a family history of breast cancer, are obese, take drugs that contain estrogen, or have received abnormally high doses of radiation, you may face an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Undergo regular diagnostic tests. Mammograms, MRI scans, and biopsies can all be useful in detection.
  • Talk to your doctor. Ask your doctor to explain his or her diagnosis and do not be afraid to get a second opinion.

Above all, keep active, eat good foods and listen to your body, says Dr. Lee. "If you're familiar with your own body, and you notice something is unusual, and your doctor says it's OK but hasn't tested you or looked into it, you should probably get a second opinion."

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