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Failure To Diagnose Bowel Cancer

Failure To Diagnose Bowel Cancer

If doctors fail to diagnose bowel cancer, causing a harmful delay in treatment, there will be grounds for a medical negligence claim. For more information, please get in touch with us and speak to one of our specialist clinical negligence solicitors.

Bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is also known as colorectal cancer. It is when a cancerous tumour develops in the large intestine (the colon) and/or the rectum.

The large intestine receives digested food from the small intestine. It is responsible for absorbing the water from the food, ensuring waste matter is left behind to create a stool. This is then passed into the rectum, where it remains until you are ready to pass a motion.

As with every other area of the body, the cells within the bowel are constantly reproducing. In some people, the cells within the lining of the bowel will reproduce uncontrollably and will continue to divide until a growth forms.

At first this growth is very small and is often referred to as a polyp or adenoma. Over time, this will become increasingly large in size until a cancerous tumour forms. If left untreated, the tumour will continue to grow through the lining, into the layers of muscle and beyond.

The cancer can then spread to other parts of the body, either through the bloodstream or through the lymphatic system. Frequently bowel cancer will spread to the liver or to the lymph nodes in the abdomen.

Who gets bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in the UK, with approximately 41,600 new cases being diagnosed each year.

Bowel cancer can affect anyone of any age, although it is rare in people under the age of 30. Around 80% of cases involve patients over the age of 60. Therefore age is the main risk factor associated with bowel cancer, with the risk increasing the older you get.

Other factors that can increase the risk of bowel cancer include:

  • A family history of bowel cancer
  • Having ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease
  • Rare hereditary conditions including familial adenomatous polyposis and Lynch syndrome/hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer
  • Being Ashkenazi Jewish
  • Having benign polyps/adenomas in the bowel
  • Having a previous history of cancer
  • Over-exposure to radiation

Symptoms of bowel cancer

Bowel cancer can take between five and 10 years to develop from a benign polyp/ adenoma into a cancerous tumour. Because of this, symptoms often come on gradually and become progressively worse with time.

The symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • Bleeding from the rectum or blood in the stools
  • A change in bowel habits, with persistent diarrhoea and loose stools
  • Pain in the abdomen or rectum
  • Feeling tired due to a low level of red blood cells (anaemia)
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling as though you need to pass a bowel motion
  • A lump in the rectum or abdomen

Diagnosing bowel cancer

If you develop these symptoms, it is important to seek immediate medical attention from your GP.

Of course, these symptoms may be caused by a variety of other conditions and do not necessarily mean that a patient has cancer. Nevertheless, it is crucial to confirm whether or not bowel cancer is present, because it is an illness that must be treated in the early stages.

Thus, if a patient presents with these symptoms, he/she must be investigated for bowel cancer. This should involve the following steps:

1. A rectal examination, to be performed by the GP. This is to check whether or not any hard masses can be felt inside the rectum.

2. A blood test, to be performed by the GP. This is to check for anaemia, which is common in bowel cancer.

3. A referral to hospital for further tests. The referral should be completed by the GP.

4. A sigmoidoscopy/colonoscopy to be carried out in hospital.

5. The test results to be explained to the patient.

If a patient is given the all clear for bowel cancer but their symptoms continue, doctors must ensure that they find the underlying cause.

If an alternative explanation cannot be found, the diagnostic tests for bowel cancer must be repeated. This is because it is possible that the tumour was previously small, and although it was enough to cause symptoms, it could not be seen on the scan. Therefore if a patient's symptoms do not improve, a colonoscopy should be repeated.

Treating bowel cancer

If bowel cancer is diagnosed, a patient will be advised as to the staging of their disease. This reveals how far advanced the cancer has become, and whether it has spread to other areas of the body and/or the lymph nodes.

Medical practitioners must devise a suitable treatment plan according to the patient's staging. If caught in the early stages, the condition can be effectively treated with surgery alone. For advanced bowel cancer, it may be necessary to undergo chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.

Bowel cancer and substandard medical care

If medical practitioners fail to achieve the standard of care as set out above, they will have breached their duty of care towards a patient.

Because the successful treatment of bowel cancer is so dependent upon an early diagnosis, a substandard level of care can have devastating impact upon a patient's prognosis. One of the most troubling medical errors is a failure to diagnose, resulting in a significant delay in treatment.

A failure to diagnose bowel cancer may arise because:

  • A GP does not recognise a patient's symptoms as being indicative of bowel cancer
  • A GP does not refer a patient for further tests
  • The hospital fails to detect a tumour on the imaging results
  • A GP fails to re-refer a patient for tests when their symptoms persist (even though bowel cancer had previously been ruled out)

If a substandard level of medical care means that a patient's prognosis has been adversely affected, there may be grounds for a medical negligence compensation claim.

Claiming compensation

To find out if you can claim compensation for bowel cancer, please get in touch with us today. Whether the negligence has affected you or your loved one, we will be able to provide further advice regarding your options.

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