Cancer misdiagnoses claim 40,000 lives per year – and lung cancer is one of the most commonly misdiagnosed cancers.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of deaths related to cancer in the United States.
Time is of the essence when it comes to treating lung cancer. When lung cancer is misdiagnosed, the patient may not receive the treatment he or she needs until the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage. By then, it’s often too late.
Learn more about lung cancer – and how misdiagnosed lung cancer patients can take action – below.
Lung Cancer Overview
What is lung cancer? What are the different kinds of lung cancer? And what causes lung cancer to develop?
Lung cancer is a medical condition in which abnormal cells grow and develop in the lungs, the organs used for breathing.
These abnormal cells divide, and the increase in the number of cells leads to growths called tumors. The abnormal cells cause harm to the body as they grow and spread.
Types of Lung Cancer
The term lung cancer doesn’t refer to just one disease.
Any kind of cancerous condition that begins in the lungs can fall under the category of lung cancer. However, since these conditions have different characteristics, it’s important to understand the specific kind of lung cancer you (or your family member) are facing – and what a delayed lung cancer diagnosis means for you.
Small Cell Lung Cancer
Just 10 to 15 percent of lung cancers are small cell lung cancers, the American Cancer Society reported. However, cases of small cell lung cancer are very serious. Small cell long cancer spreads rapidly even in early stages.
Due to its quick progression, small cell lung cancer misdiagnosis is particularly harmful. There’s no time to lose. The longer a small cell lung cancer diagnosis is delayed, the more difficult the condition becomes to treat.
Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
The vast majority of lung cancer cases fall into the category of non-small cell lung cancers.
With around 85 percent of all lung cancers fitting into this category, non-small cell lung cancer misdiagnosis is an issue that affects many patients.
There are multiple kinds of non-small cell lung cancer, including large cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and adenocarcinoma.
Lung Carcinoid Tumor
The rarest kind of lung cancer is the lung carcinoid tumor. These slow-growing tumors account for fewer than five percent of all lung cancers. When lung carcinoid tumors do develop, they’re unlikely to spread beyond the lungs.
Lung Cancer Causes
Smoking is the number-one cause of lung cancer. However, there are other factors that can raise your risk of developing lung cancer, even if you don’t smoke.
Lung cancer can be hereditary. If you have a family history of lung cancer, you may be at a greater risk of developing the condition yourself.
Workplace Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos is a carcinogen – that is, a substance that causes cancer – commonly found in workplaces such as construction sites, automotive repair shops, mines, shipyards, and paper mills. Asbestos fibers are often components of insulation, roofing, flooring, and drywall.
Repeated exposure to asbestos and other carcinogens is a lung cancer risk factor you should be aware of.
Radon Gas Exposure
The chemical uranium exists in natural resources such as water and soil. As this element breaks down over time, it produces a gas called radon. In large quantities, radon can be dangerous – and potentially even increase your lung cancer risk.
One way you can tell if your home, workplace, or another environment has exposed you to unsafe levels of radon gas is to purchase a radon testing kit. These easy-to-use tests check to see if the radon levels inside the building are dangerously high.
Lung Cancer Facts
How Common Is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer statistics are alarming. Around 230,000 Americans receive lung cancer diagnoses each year. Lung cancer accounts for 14 percent of all new cancer diagnoses in the United States.
In men, lung cancer is the second most common kind of cancer, behind prostate cancer. In women, only breast cancer is more prevalent than lung cancer.
Lung Cancer Death Rate
Though lung cancer is not the most prevalent cancer in the U.S, it is the most deadly. In fact, more than one-quarter of all cancer deaths involves lung cancer.
Lung cancer kills more Americans than breast, ovarian, prostate, and colon cancer combined, according to Mayo Clinic.
In total, 160,000 of the lung cancer patients diagnosed with the condition each year do not survive for longer than five years.
Any lung cancer death is tragic. However, when a misdiagnosis or a delay in lung cancer diagnosis has left a patient with a grave prognosis or taken the life of a family member, you can’t help but wonder whether the harm was preventable.
If doctors had detected the lung cancer earlier, would the circumstances be different now?
Sadly, it’s possible. If only the doctors had caught the condition sooner, your family might have avoided this terrible situation.
Who Develops Lung Cancer?
No one is truly safe from lung cancer. Though certain factors may make you more likely to develop lung cancer, the condition affects men and women, people of all races and ethnicities, across a wide range of age groups.
Lung Cancer in Men
Men are statistically more likely to suffer from lung cancer than women. One out of 14 men will develop lung cancer at some point during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.
It’s thought that part of the reason males have a higher lung cancer risk is due to higher rates of smoking. Men can help reduce their lung cancer risk by avoiding smoking – and even avoiding secondhand smoke exposure.
The symptoms of lung cancer are generally similar between males and females. However, certain lung cancer symptoms in men, such as a chronic cough and coughing up blood, often appear earlier than they might in women.
This happens because males more commonly get a type of cancer, called squamous cell carcinoma, that develops near the central airways of the lungs rather than in the organ’s outer regions. Because they are close to these central airways, these cancers typically present symptoms sooner.
Men may also be more likely to develop a condition called paraneoplastic syndrome in conjunction with lung cancer. This condition develops when cancerous tumors produce a substance that raises the level of calcium in your blood and lowers your sodium levels. Men with paraneoplastic syndrome might experience muscle cramps, weakness in their upper limbs, and a loss of coordination.
Lung Cancer in Women
One in 17 women will develop lung cancer during their lifetime, the American Cancer Society reported.
Though their overall likelihood of developing lung cancer is lower, women haven’t seen the declines in new lung cancer cases that men have seen. In the last 39 years, the rates of newly diagnosed lung cancer cases has decreased by 32 percent among men, but have seen a sharp increase of 94 percent among women, according to the American Lung Association. Only recently has the number of new lung cancer cases among women started to drop significantly from the peak it reached in 1998.
Unlike male patients, females are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma, a condition that often grows significantly before presenting symptoms, rather than other kinds of lung cancer. For this reason, the most common lung cancer symptoms in women tend to be fatigue, back and shoulder pain, and shortness of breath.
Lung Cancer Rates by Age
The majority of patients with lung cancer are elderly. The average age at which patients are diagnosed with lung cancer is 70, and two-thirds of patients are older than 65 when they receive their diagnosis, the American Cancer Society reported.
Though it’s usually a “disease of the elderly,” lung cancer can strike younger patients. Because the condition is so uncommon in young patients, doctors might not immediately consider the possibility of lung cancer, even when the symptoms point to the disease. A delay in the diagnosis of lung cancer may be more likely in these situations.
Lung Cancer Rates by Race and Ethnicity
While age and gender have a greater impact on your lung cancer risk, race and ethnicity may also play a role in the likelihood of developing the condition.
For example, black men have a 20 percent greater chance of developing lung cancer than white men do, the American Cancer Society reported. However, black women are 10 percent less likely to get lung cancer than white women.
Lung Cancer in Smokers
Smoking is the biggest factor that puts you at risk of developing lung cancer. The best way to minimize your risk of lung cancer is to quit smoking right away. Even exposure to secondhand smoke can raise your lung cancer risk.
Getting lung cancer without smoking is far less common than developing the condition as a smoker. However, non-smokers can develop lung cancer. Around 20 percent of lung cancer patients in the United States are non-smokers, according to the American Cancer Society.
For some of these non-smokers, there may be a hereditary component, like a gene mutation. Others might have suffered exposure to carcinogens due to workplace hazards, air pollution, secondhand smoke, or spending time inside a building with an unsafe level of radon gas.
Because non-smokers are much less likely to develop the condition, their symptoms may be ignored or misdiagnosed. Even when the condition presents symptoms, undiagnosed lung cancer in non-smokers often progresses to an advanced stage.
Lung Cancer Symptoms
Some of the most common lung cancer warning signs include:
- A cough that won’t go away
- Hoarseness or voice changes
- Coughing up blood
- Bone pain
- Unexplained back pain or shoulder pain
- Chest pain
- Knee pain
- Chronic headaches
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Repeated infections
- Yellowing of fingernails or toenails
- Bad breath
Unfortunately, there are often few, if any, early signs of lung cancer. This is one of the reasons lung cancer is so deadly. The lack of early symptoms of lung cancer prevents patients from seeking medical care. By the time the first signs of lung cancer develop, the condition has often progressed to an advanced, and less treatable, stage.
When it comes to curing lung cancer, early detection can make a big difference. As soon as you start noticing a chronic cough or unusual shortness of breath – even if it seems minor – consider these changes possible early lung cancer symptoms. Get to a doctor for screening immediately.
How Can Lung Cancer Be Misdiagnosed?
Unfortunately, many of the early symptoms of lung cancer are also present in other conditions.
If your symptoms include coughing up blood, your lung cancer might be misdiagnosed as tuberculosis.
A nagging cough could cause lung cancer to be misdiagnosed as pneumonia, bronchitis, or an infection.
The respiratory distress, like shortness of breath, that characterizes lung cancer can be misdiagnosed as asthma or COPD.
Other conditions lung cancer may be misdiagnosed as include:
- Acid reflux
- Encysted lung effusion
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
- Lung abscesses
- Lung nodules
- Pulmonary embolism
- Thoracic Hodgkin disease
If your doctor failed to diagnose lung cancer correctly despite knowing your early symptoms, he or she may have made your cancer battle even more difficult.
Lung Cancer Diagnosis
How do physicians diagnose lung cancer? At the first signs of lung cancer, doctors should order the appropriate tests to find out if cancer is the true cause of the symptoms, or if another health condition could be causing them.
Lung Cancer Screening
There are a number of lung cancer tests that can reveal if you have this serious condition. Unlike other kinds of cancer for which preventive screening measures are common, lung cancer is typically only screened for after a patient begins showing symptoms.
Lung Cancer Imaging Tests
One action your doctor should take if you start displaying lung cancer early symptoms is ordering an imaging test. The results of these tests can show doctors a view of the inside of your body – and help them identify any nodules, masses, lumps, or other changes that could indicate cancer.
Doctors use the following diagnostic tests to screen for lung cancer:
- CT scans
- PET scans
Diagnostic imaging is often just the first step in lung cancer detection. Even if a mass that could indicate lung cancer shows up on a CT scan or X-ray, it may be non-cancerous.
Sputum Tests for Diagnosing Lung Cancer
A sputum test – the examination of the phlegm, or the mucus and saliva that you cough up – may be the next step in diagnosing lung cancer.
The advantages of a sputum test is that the procedure isn’t invasive. However, the results aren’t always accurate.
A sputum test can come up with a false positive result, particularly if inflammation is occurring and causing damage to the cells.
You could also get a false negative result. The cells that make up the sputum might appear normal, but you could still have cancerous cells growing within your lung tissues.
Diagnosing Lung Cancer With a Bronchoscopy
A more accurate method of screening for lung cancer is to perform a bronchoscopy.
In this invasive procedure, doctors insert a tube equipped with a small camera into your nose or mouth, through the airways, and into your lungs. A bronchoscopy allows doctors to look directly into the lungs and surrounding airways for signs of cancer. Physicians can even gather tissue samples for further testing during the bronchoscopy.
Every medical procedure involves risk, and a bronchoscopy is no exception. Some of the effects patients suffer after a bronchoscopy include:
- Coughing up blood, and possibly severe bleeding, for days
- Heart arrhythmia, or potentially serious problems with heart rhythm
- Decreased levels of oxygen in the blood, which can cause respiratory problems like shortness of breath
Identifying Lung Cancer Through a Biopsy
Another way for doctors to diagnose lung cancer is through a biopsy. In a biopsy, lung cancer doctors use a thin needle to collect samples of tissues that they can run tests on.
What can go wrong with a lung cancer biopsy? A biopsy can lead to misdiagnosis in one of two ways:
- If the doctor performing the procedure collects a tissue sample from the wrong part of the lungs or airways, the biopsy show a negative result even though cancer is present
- If the pathologists reading the test results misinterpret the findings, the patient could being going about their lives with undiagnosed lung cancer – and without the treatment needed to make a recovery
Lung Cancer Treatment
There are a variety of treatment options for lung cancer patients.
Treatments for lung cancer include:
- Radiation therapy
- Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)
- Targeted therapies
- Lung cancer drugs
Which treatment you will undergo depends on the type of lung cancer you have, how advanced that cancer is, your overall health, and other factors. Your oncologist can help you understand which treatment methods have the best chance of curing your lung cancer or extending your life.
Lung Cancer Prognosis
As a patient, a lot of the lung cancer questions you ask your doctor are about your prognosis.
What is the lung cancer outlook like for patients with your specific kind of cancer? What is the survival rate like? If there’s a strong chance that the lung cancer could be fatal, how long do you have to live?
Lung Cancer Stages
One way lung cancer oncologists classify cancers is by stage. The lower the stage, the earlier it is in the progression of the disease – and typically, the more treatable the condition is.
Lung Cancer Stage 0
When detected very early, lung cancer might be described as Stage 0. At this point, the cancer exists only in the lining layer of your airways and has not spread to the lung tissue itself or beyond the lungs. Stage 0 lung cancer is the easiest to treat.
Lung Cancer Stage 1
At Stage I, the cancerous cells haven’t spread beyond the lungs.
Lung Cancer Stage 2
When lung cancer reaches Stage II, it has spread outside the lungs, to the nearby lymph nodes.
Lung Cancer Stage 3
Stage III lung cancer affects the lung and the lymph nodes located in the middle of the chest.
When the cancer has spread only to the lymph nodes on the same side of the chest as the affected lung, the condition is considered Stage IIIA.
Stage IIIB lung cancer is the term used when the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes on the other side of the chest or to any point above the collar bone.
Lung Cancer Stage 4
Stage IV is lung cancer’s last stage. At this point, the cancer has spread to both lungs or to other organs in the body. Late stage lung cancer is the most difficult to treat.
Lung Cancer Survival Rates by Stage
If you have questions about lung cancer life expectancy, it may help you to look at survival rates by stage of cancer.
|Lung Cancer Stage||5-Year Survival Rate|
|Stage 0||60-80 percent|
|Stage I||45-49 percent|
|Stage II||30-31 percent|
|Stage IIIA||14 percent|
|Stage IIIB||5 percent|
|Stage IV||1 percent|
(Five-year survival rate data courtesy of the American Cancer Society)
Lung Cancer Outlook by Stage
As the table above shows, the five-year survival rate varies drastically depending on the stage of your cancer. Lung cancer at stage 0’s survival rate is fairly positive, and the prognosis is good. The more advanced the cancer at the time of diagnosis, the lower the survival rate.
Keep in mind that the lung cancer odds of survival alone can’t predict your outcome. Not only are there differences due to what kind of cancer you have, where it is located, and what stage it’s at, but there are also breakthroughs in treatments happening frequently. What was an incurable cancer five years ago might be a treatable condition today.
Lung Cancer Outcomes After Misdiagnosis
The overall survival rate for lung cancer is relatively low as it is. When patients fall victim to a delay in lung cancer diagnosis, they’re not getting the immediate care they need to have the best chance at getting better.
Instead, the illness is allowed to progress. Tumors grow. The cancer spreads. Your survival rate shrinks.
Lung Cancer Misdiagnosis, Missed Diagnosis, and Delayed Diagnosis
There are multiple types of failures to diagnose lung cancer.
Some conditions are misdiagnosed, or diagnosed incorrectly.
Others are delayed, as doctors take too long to arrive at the right diagnosis or to inform the patient, and the patient suffers harm as a result.
Still other cancer cases are completely missed. Patients may suffer severe symptoms, or even lose their lives, before doctors finally identify the lung cancer that’s causing the problems.
Lung Cancer Misdiagnosis
When lung cancer is misdiagnosed, the patient doesn’t receive the treatment needed to get better. In the case of a serious condition like cancer, not getting the right medical care at the right time can cost lives.
Additionally, because the condition was misdiagnosed, the patient may be receiving treatment for a medical condition he or she doesn’t even have. This unnecessary treatment can put the patient’s health at even greater risk.
Missed Diagnosis of Lung Cancer
If your doctor missed your lung cancer diagnosis, there’s a good chance that your prognosis is significantly worse now than it was at the time you should have been diagnosed.
A missed diagnosis of lung cancer is a serious matter. The doctor may have brushed off your complaints entirely. Your physician didn’t just fail to diagnose your condition accurately, but instead failed to diagnose it as anything at all.
Lung Cancer Delayed Diagnosis
Whether it’s caused by a lung cancer missed diagnosis or a misdiagnosis, any delay in finding out that you have lung cancer can have severe consequences. The longer it took for you to finally get the right diagnosis, the worse off your outlook is now.
How the Failure to Diagnose Lung Cancer Reduces the Chance of Survival
When it comes to a condition like lung cancer, where the low survival rate is already discouraging, early detection is key. Your doctor should initiate testing early on if you’re experiencing lung cancer symptoms, particularly if you have any of the risk factors. The sooner you know about the cancer, the sooner treatment can begin to stop it from growing and spreading.
That’s precisely the problem when lung cancer is misdiagnosed. Potentially life-saving treatments are delayed for weeks, months, even years. All the while, the condition worsens. Sometimes, by the time the patient learns the truth, it’s too late.
Lung Cancer Misdiagnosis and Medical Malpractice
One of the most common lung cancer questions patients who have been misdiagnosed have is what they can do about the situation. A delayed lung cancer diagnosis can be a form of medical malpractice.
If you saw your doctor about symptoms that can be early signs of lung cancer yet weren’t diagnosed with the condition for some time – and particularly, if your cancer is at an advanced stage – you may have a medical malpractice claim.
Lung Cancer Stories
Behind every lung cancer statistic is a real person – someone with a family, goals for the future, and their own unique lung cancer story. Here’s one of countless lung cancer misdiagnosis stories.
Several years ago, a gentleman went to the emergency room for injuries he sustained in an assault. During the course of his examination, the ER doctors performed a chest X-ray.
Instead of the rib fractures doctors had feared, the results of the X-ray showed a small nodule in his lung. It was an early-stage mass – so early that he wasn’t even experiencing symptoms yet – but it was cancerous all the same.
Because the lung cancer hadn’t had the time yet to progress, because it hadn’t spread, and because it was so small, the patient’s prognosis would have been good – if only he had been diagnosed with lung cancer then and there.
The doctors at the emergency room saw the mass, identified it as cancer, and even documented it in the man’s medical records. Unfortunately, though, they failed to ever inform him that he had cancer or to refer him to a physician who could help. He went about his life without seeking treatment. All the while, his condition worsened.
Not until five years later, when his symptoms became serious enough to affect his life on a daily basis, did the patient learn that he had cancer. By then, the small mass had grown to a much larger size. The cancer had spread beyond his lungs, metastasizing to his brain and his lymph nodes.
In the years since that chest X-ray, his lung cancer had gone from early stage to late stage. His condition was terminal. He started hospice care and passed away shortly after, at just 52 years old.
It was clear that the emergency room doctors’ mistakes had cost this man his life. His family knew that he deserved justice. They held the doctors accountable for their mistakes by filing a medical malpractice claim.