Breast Cancer – Misdiagnosis or Late Diagnosis – What’s the difference?

Breast Cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer effecting women in Ireland. Statistics show that 1 in 9 women will suffer from this form of cancer at some stage during their lives.


In spite of this being such a well flagged risk in women of all ages and there being clear referral pathways, medical practitioners are still making culpable mistakes too often.

The most common types of medical error that we come across in legal practice are misdiagnosis and/or late diagnosis. Late diagnosis for various reasons is, in our legal practice experience, the most common mistake that leads to serious or terminal breast cancer.

It is, of course, a fact that misdiagnosis leaves the condition completely untreated and almost always very serious or even fatal consequences. A negligent misdiagnosis will almost certainly entitle the patient to take a medical negligence action against the medical professional treating them.

On the other hand, late diagnosis cases need to be examined much more carefully to see if a legal action arises. In the first instance a late diagnosis may not be negligent. Sometimes a condition is indeed difficult to diagnose and all options need to be considered by the medical practitioner before reaching a conclusion. This is referred to as a “differential diagnosis” and this kind of diagnosis is like a filter that gradually rules out different possibilities until the actual diagnosis become apparent. In these circumstances there may well be a delay in the diagnosis and indeed the condition may progress during that delay but it probably would not result in the right to take a court action because of the nature of the difficulty of the diagnosis.

On the other hand, a delay in diagnosis could well be negligent but not result in the victim of that negligence being entitled to take a court action. This may sound, on the face of it, to be a strange concept. Surely, if there was negligence the victim of the negligence should be able to sue? That is not always the case. It all depends on the damage that it caused by the negligent delay. We recently carried out an investigation for a woman who underwent medical testing and her cancer was missed. A later review of events found that her cancer should have been detected at that early stage and it was not. However, another significant health event found her in hospital soon afterwards and she came under the care of a different medical team who discovered her cancer. She was immediately assessed and treated. Thankfully her treatment was received in time to stop her cancer from progressing. Precisely because of this accidental finding of the cancer and the timely treatment of it, her cancer did not progress. She did not take a legal action even though the initial medical care that she received was negligent because there was no damage caused by the negligence.

Of course, not everyone is that lucky and the chances are that if you are the victim of a negligent late diagnosis and if the condition that you have is cancerous, then it is more likely than not that that cancer will develop during the period between the time that you should have been diagnosed and the time that you are actually diagnosed. This is a classic example of negligent medical treatment leading to a delay in treatment which in turn leads to the development of cancer. Failings in the care of breast cancer can be devastating. They can cause the cancer to spread meaning that more aggressive treatment is needed or limiting the treatment options and in severe cases impacting life expectancy.

In summary, there are two elements to any case. The first of these is that the care received has to fall short to a degree that it is deemed to be negligent. The second of these is that damage must be caused by the negligence.

We have a number of booklets on the litigation or court process and also on how to bring a successful medical negligence case in Ireland and if you or anybody you know is interested, please get in touch and we shall let you have a copy of the relevant document.

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