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Rare cancer misdiagnosis leads to chemotherapy, hysterectomy

Picture going through months of chemotherapy – even having a life-alerting surgery – all to treat the cancer that you did not really have? It’s a hard image to even process, but it’s a reality that some women are going through.

ABC News recently published an article looking into the frequency of cases involving women who are misdiagnosed with a rare form of cancer due to elevated HCG levels.

How cancer is misdiagnosed

HCG is a hormone in your body that elevates when you are pregnant. When going to the doctor for a blood pregnancy test, a pregnancy test will typically come back positive if this hormone is elevated.

However, if the hormone is elevated – but the doctors cannot find a fetus – this could be a sign of an aggressive form of cancer. Untreated, this cancer -- gestational trophoblastic tumor – can spread rapidly and kill. This is why some doctors tend to elect to treat right away with chemotherapy, sometimes even starting treatment without first finding an actual tumor.

Here is where part of the problem lies: Doctors are relying on the hormone results from a pregnancy test – which is not designed to detect cancer.

Misdiagnosis turns to legal action

In the recent article, one woman shared her personal and heart-breaking story. At the age of 22, a blood test showed elevated HCG levels, but no fetus. She was diagnosed with cancer, underwent chemotherapy and later a hysterectomy. She has since learned she never really had cancer to begin with. Rather, she is part of the 10 percent of the population with a naturally occurring substance in her blood that can skew the results of lab tests. In this case, the results of the blood test were inaccurate.

Upset about going through unnecessary treatment – one that left her unable to have children – she sued and was awarded $16 million. Half is coming from Abbott Laboratories – the company that makes the blood test – and the other half is from the hospital where she was referred to see a cancer specialist.

Researcher finds 34 cancer misdiagnosis cases

What is scary is that this woman is not alone. In fact, one Yale researcher, who published an article looking at the number of women who are misdiagnosed with cancer from false positive pregnancy tests, found 34 similar cases. Of these, 32 involved pregnancy tests made by Abbott.

Abbott is continuing to maintain that the issue of false positives has been documented in medical literature for years and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved their pregnancy tests to diagnose pregnancies – not cancer. However, doctors say that this strict use of the test is not widely known and that the literature that comes along with the tests is frequently given to the labs – not the doctors.

Abbott has since added a line about the intended use of the pregnancy tests and sent a letter to labs with the instruction to remind customers that these tests are not to be used to diagnose cancer. Abbott also plans to appeal the recent $16 million decision – of which the company owes half.

Preventing a misdiagnosis

As a patient – you want to be able to trust the results and advice of your doctor or medical team. However, as this story and article goes to show, mistakes do happen. And while getting a second opinion is one option when it comes to a diagnosis, as a patient, you should not have to pay for someone else’s mistake.

Diagnosing mistakes can happen for a number of reasons, including:

  • Failure to order the right diagnostic tests
  • Misinterpreting the results of tests
  • A doctor not fully listening to your complaints or symptoms
  • Medical staff missing parts of your medical history

Medical mistakes can be life-changing – and in some cases -- even deadly. Seeking compensation not only helps with bills and pain and suffering stemming from the misdiagnosis, but it also sends the message to companies and medical professionals that mistakes like this cannot and will not be tolerated. This can end up resulting in systematic changes that benefit others in the long run.

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