When it comes to fighting cancer, time is of the essence. A delay in diagnosis of breast cancer could mean the difference between life and death for a patient.
The only thing worse than discovering you have cancer is discovering it too late.
Breast Cancer is Frequently Misdiagnosed, Which Then Leads to a Delayed Diagnosis
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women, with approximately 1 in every 8 U.S. women developing breast cancer over the course of her life.
Unfortunately, it is also one of the most common types of cancer for a delay in diagnosis or a misdiagnosis.
In a 2002 study of 435 breast cancer patients, 9% experienced a delayed diagnosis. It was found that of those patients, the largest percentage started their journey by being misdiagnosed by their doctor that a malignant lump was benign without biopsy.
Such a delay in diagnosis is most frequently associated with younger patients who find their own lump. Doctors often mistakenly believe that breast complaints in young women are signs of benign disease rather than malignancy. They inexplicably operate under the mistaken belief that young women don’t get breast cancer and their self-discovered masses don’t warrant further investigation. Yet approximately 2% of breast cancer in the United States occurs in very young women.
Delayed diagnosis of breast cancer has also been related to women that present their doctor with chief complaints other than a mass or lump. Approximately 5% of all breast cancer is inflammatory, a variant that looks similar to an infection. Patients that are misdiagnosed as having a breast infection are commonly placed on a series of antibiotics – resulting in a delay in diagnosis that can cost the patient her breast and, perhaps, her life.
Another important factor that plays a serious role in the delayed diagnoses of breast cancer is that women with dense breast tissue are four to six times more likely to develop cancer. Nearly 50% of women have dense breast tissue. However, shockingly, more than 90% of those women don’t know their breast tissue is dense.
When it comes to detecting cancer in dense tissue breasts, mammograms are less effective because the dense glandular tissue can often obscure cancerous tissue. One of the best ways to be certain that a woman with dense breasts is cancer-free is to use MRI or ultrasound scans, which can often find cancers that are virtually invisible on a mammogram. But many women don’t know to explore those options because they were never told by a doctor or radiologist that they have dense tissue.
Doctors Should Encourage Biopsy
An easy way to prevent such delayed diagnoses would be for doctors to encourage diagnostic tissue sampling from all palpable breast masses. Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy is the least invasive way to obtain tissue and is 80 to 85% accurate in giving a clear indication as to whether a breast lump is malignant. However, it is imperative you locate a doctor with formal training in FNA. Frighteningly, a 2001 study found that tissue sampling by physicians without formal training in FNA technique missed 25% of cancers, while physicians with formal training missed only 2% of cancers.
These figures show how important it is for women and physicians alike to not only know the symptoms of breast cancer, but to act on them without delay. If you have concerns about the health of your breasts, immediately seek medical attention and educate yourself. Always remember that the only thing worse than finding out you have breast cancer, is finding out too late.
Goodson WH, III, Moore DH, II. Causes of Physician Delay in the Diagnosis of Breast Cancer. Arch Intern Med. 2002;162(12):1343-1348.
Ljung BM, Drejet A, Chiampi N. et al. Diagnostic accuracy of fine-needle aspiration biopsy is determined by physician training in sampling technique. Cancer. 2001;93263- 268.