Colorectal cancer – also known as colon cancer, rectal cancer or bowel cancer – is the third most common cancer in the United States diagnosed in men and women (excluding skin cancer). Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death in cancer patients in the U.S. The American Cancer Society estimates that in an average year there will be 136,830 new cases of colorectal cancer in the U.S., and 50,310 deaths from the disease.
What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer is the uncontrolled cell growth in the colon, rectum or appendix. The most common cancer cell type for colorectal cancer is adenocarcinoma, a malignant tumor that typically invades the inner lining of the intestinal wall first. If left untreated it can grow into the muscle layers underneath and then through the bowel wall.
Most colorectal cancer is caused by lifestyle choices and increasing age. Only a small percentage of cases are associated with underlying genetic disorders. Risk factors include older age, male gender, high intake of fat, alcohol, and red meat, as well as obesity, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle. People with inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) also have an increased risk of colorectal cancer, with the risk increasing the longer an individual has the disease and the greater severity of inflammation.
How is colorectal cancer diagnosed?
Doctors can miss a diagnosis of colorectal cancer because its symptoms are similar to other diseases, such as hemorrhoids, or because an individual shows no symptoms in the earliest, most curable stage of the cancer. Typical warning signs of colorectal cancer are rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, worsening constipation, anemia, loss of appetite, weight loss, and/or vomiting.
The vast majority of colorectal cancer cases arise from adenomatous polyps, which fortunately can be detected by screening tests (colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy). Diagnosis of colorectal cancer through screening tends to occur two to three years before diagnosis based on physical symptoms. Screening procedures can also remove polyps before they become cancerous. A colonoscopy involves a physician observing the inside of a colon with a colonoscope, which is a thin, flexible tube with a tiny video camera. A sigmoidoscopy involves the inspection of the lower part of the large intestine (colon) using a lighted viewing scope. Screening tests are recommended for individuals between the ages of 50 to 75, with sigmoidoscopies recommended every five years and colonoscopies recommended every 10 years. Another screening method is fecal occult blood testing, which is recommended every two years.
A tumor biopsy (collection of tissue samples for examination) is typically done during a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, depending on the location of the lesion. Once a doctor has diagnosed colorectal cancer, determining the extent of the disease involves a CT scan or MRI of the chest, abdomen and pelvis. This is an important diagnostic procedure for establishing the cancer stage, which determines the type and length of treatments. Staging involves an assessment of how much the cancer has spread, and if lymph nodes are involved.
Delayed or misdiagnosis of colorectal cancer
A delayed or misdiagnosis of colorectal cancer can deprive a patient of treatment options that can cure the disease, as well as force the patient to undergo more rigorous and painful treatments with a lower likelihood of surviving the cancer. Delays in diagnosing colorectal cancer can be caused by a number of different factors, including:
- A treating physician’s delay in referring a patient to a specialist (gastroenterologist) when a patient has a family history of colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or cancer symptoms
- A delay in making a definitive diagnosis
- An incomplete physical examination when symptoms are present, such as failing to take a detailed medical history or thorough summary of all symptoms, failing to order blood or stool tests, or failing to conduct a digital rectal exam to check for any lumps or masses inside the rectum
- Misreading a screening test
- Failing to recognize and identify a cancerous tumor as part of a screening test
- Misdiagnosing symptoms as “irritable bowel syndrome” or “hemorrhoids” without ordering follow up tests for a more definitive diagnosis
- Failing to recognize the significance of symptoms warranting referral to a specialist for a proper evaluation and management of a patient’s care
- Failing to mandate adequate follow up in the absence of definitive findings
- Failing to review laboratory or X-ray reports
- Failing to communicate test results to a patient
- Failing to obtain test results previously ordered
- Mislabeling or mishandling biopsy specimens obtained for examination
Consequences of colorectal cancer misdiagnosis
Early screening of colorectal cancer greatly increases the effectiveness of treatments and chance for a cure. A localized tumor can be surgically removed in early stages of colorectal cancer, with the goal of curing the disease. The five-year survival rate of a patient with an early-stage tumor (Stage 0) that has not breached the inner lining of the colon is essentially 100 percent. The five-year survival rate of patients with a tumor that has infiltrated the muscular layer of the colon but remains localized (Stages 1 or 2) is 90 percent.
If the disease has advanced to stages three or four (meaning it has spread to other parts of the body, typically the liver or lungs, or has infected lymph nodes), surgical removal remains an option but the likelihood of removing all of the cancer is diminished considerably. The survival rate of Stage 3 colorectal cancer is 70 percent if lymph nodes are not involved, and 40 percent if nodes are involved. Improving quality of life by minimizing symptoms through palliative care is usually the focus of treatments for advanced cases of colorectal cancer. Treatment options include pain medications, and chemotherapy or radiation treatments to decrease the size of the tumor. Surgery is sometimes undertaken to remove some of the cancerous tissue, or bypassing part of the intestines. The survival rate for Stage 4 colorectal cancer is five percent.
Did a delayed colon cancer diagnosis increase my chance of death?
With our experience in delayed diagnosis cases, we can build clear, compelling cases for recovery. Colorectal cancer patients who would have had a near certain prognosis of cure and survival with an early diagnosis can recover for an “increased chance of death” or harsher treatment regimens they have to endure as a result of a delayed diagnosis of their cancer.
Powers & Santola, LLP, attorneys are dedicated to providing outstanding legal representation to individuals who have been harmed by a needlessly delayed diagnosis of cancer. Legal excellence entails not only knowledge and talent, but also having the resources and a commitment to fundamentally changing the lives of our clients and their families for the better. Our delayed cancer diagnosis lawyers do this by helping them find answers to difficult questions, and to obtain compensation for the harm caused by medical malpractice.
Founded in 1987, Powers & Santola, LLP, has established a reputation for excellence by devoting its full attention and resources to a limited number of very seriously injured clients in New York and other states. When we agree to represent someone, we resolve that our services will be dedicated to helping that person improve his or her life for the better. To make that commitment meaningful, we focus our skills, efforts and other resources on helping a select group of clients.
We can help you find the answers you need. To talk with us about a lawsuit involving a delayed diagnosis of colorectal cancer, call Powers & Santola, LLP, at 518.465.5995 or contact us online.