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The consequences of a melanoma misdiagnosis

Category: Misdiagnosis Claims

Last Updated: 5th Oct 2021

About the Author

Medical Negligence Solicitor - LLB (Hons) Anglia Ruskin University

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While all forms of skin cancer can cause substantial harm if allowed to develop to their later stages, malignant melanoma can be particularly aggressive – and potentially life-threatening if not diagnosed or treated early enough.

Melanoma skin cancer is the 5th most common form of cancer in the UK, with over 16,000 cases reported each year. When it is spotted early by GPs or other healthcare professionals, it is almost always treatable. Sadly, this does not always happen; more than 2,300 a year die from melanoma.

The emphasis on early treatment means that any misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis can have a significant impact on a person’s long-term health and wellbeing. When symptoms are overlooked or test results are misplaced, the consequences can be serious.

Here we outline how melanoma may be misdiagnosed, what the outcome of a misdiagnosis can be, and how to make a cancer misdiagnosis claim.

How is melanoma diagnosed?

The clearest sign of melanoma is the appearance of a new mole on the body, or an existing mole changing appearance. Indicators that a mole might be developing into a melanoma include:

  • The mole gets bigger, changes shape or changes colour

  • The mole is no longer symmetrical

  • The mole is itchy or becomes painful

  • The mole begins to bleed

  • The mole looks inflamed

Due to this, diagnosis of melanoma often begins with a healthcare professional examining a person’s skin to locate any suspicious moles, or with someone attending a doctor as they have concerns about a mole. If melanoma is suspected, the patient should then be recommended to a specialist – such as a dermatologist or plastic surgeon – to further examine the mole and the rest of their skin.

The dermatologist or surgeon may perform a biopsy. This is where they remove a piece of the mole for examination to determine what it is.

If the mole is discovered to be a melanoma, further tests may be conducted to determine the stage of the melanoma and to discover if it has spread to the patient’s other organs, bones or blood. These may include:

  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy

  • Lymph node dissection or completion lymphadenectomy

  • CT scan

  • MRI scan

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

  • Blood tests

These tests are important to determine how deeply the melanoma has grown into the skin, and how far it has spread. The earlier the stage, the greater likelihood that the patient will have a strong survival rate following treatment – Stage 1 melanoma has a near-100% survival rate for five years or more after diagnosis.

What can cause a melanoma misdiagnosis?

In the vast majority of cases, healthcare professionals can accurately diagnose a suspicious mole and refer promptly to ensure the patient receives the treatment they require as soon as possible.

However, mistakes do happen – and these mistakes can waste precious time. Time during which the melanoma can grow and spread, impacting a person’s health, changing their treatment options, and worsening their prognosis.

Circumstances that can lead to a medical misdiagnosis or a delay in misdiagnosis include:

  • A GP or another healthcare professional overlooking or downplaying a suspicious-looking mole

  • A melanoma being mistaken for a benign mole or another benign condition such as seborrheic keratosis

  • A GP failing to refer a patient to see a dermatologist or plastic surgeon

  • A delay in referring a patient

  • A biopsy being misinterpreted

  • Results of biopsies being misplaced, filed away, or not passed onto the patient to start treatment

  • Misdiagnosis of the stage or type of cancer leading to ineffective treatment

As a result, the melanoma may grow untreated for days, weeks, maybe even months. This delay may allow the stage of the melanoma to progress, changing the treatment options and potentially putting the patient’s long-term health at risk.

Furthermore, even if a melanoma is correctly diagnosed, the treatment offered may be inappropriate or there may be delay in providing proper treatment. Again, this delay may lead to the melanoma becoming more invasive, meaning that the treatment that was originally proposed is no longer effective.

What are the consequences of a melanoma misdiagnosis?

It can be difficult to comprehend how significant a difference early detection of melanoma can make. Prompt detection has a critical bearing on how it is treated and a patient’s prognosis. In some instances, it can be the difference between life and death.

The speed at which certain types of melanoma can progress can mean that a delay of several weeks or a month can dramatically alter how far the melanoma has developed and whether it spreads. For context, the typical treatment for a Stage 1A melanoma (less than 1mm thick) is a wide local excision. If there has not been any spread to lymph nodes, then this may be all that is required.

However, the treatment for a Stage 3A melanoma that has spread to nearby lymph nodes may be:

  • Surgery to remove satellite or in-transit metastases

  • Laser surgery using a carbon dioxide laser

  • Chemotherapy, or chemotherapy combined with an electric current

  • Targeted cancer drugs

  • Immunotherapy

These more severe and prolonged treatments may be avoided with earlier diagnosis.

Delay in diagnosis and treatment can also greatly influence a patient’s prognosis. Continuing with the above example, the five-year survival rate for Stage 1 melanoma patients is close to 100% – for Stage 3 patients, this drops to 70%.

This illustrates how crucial speed of diagnosis is in effective melanoma treatment, and the long-term repercussions that may occur with delay for the patient and their loved ones.

Making a claim for a melanoma misdiagnosis

Every melanoma has the potential to become life-threatening. Nevertheless, the difference between an in situ melanoma and one that has begun to metastasise cannot be overstated.

Therefore, if a preventable misdiagnosis or avoidable delay allows a melanoma to grow to the point that treatment and/or prognosis are affected, that person is entitled to make a cancer misdiagnosis claim.

At Gadsby Wicks, we are true specialists in bringing claims for all forms of medical negligence. Following a melanoma misdiagnosis, we work alongside claimants to investigate who breached their duty of care and when diagnosis should have taken place.

We will speak to medical experts, including an oncologist, to determine what treatment the claimant should have received and what their prognosis would have been if their condition was correctly diagnosed – and establish how both have changed as a result of the misdiagnosis.

We may also talk to a palliative care specialist in instances where, unfortunately, the misdiagnosis has resulted in the claimant’s condition becoming terminal.

With this expert insight, our solicitors commit the time and attention to detail necessary to secure the compensation you deserve. For more information on how this is calculated, please read this helpful insight.

If you or a loved one has been affected by a misdiagnosed melanoma, or another type of cancer misdiagnosis, we are here to help – get in touch today for specialist advice.

Disclaimer

All content contained within this article is meant for general information only – this should not be treated as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor or another healthcare provider. If you require legal advice specific to your situation, please contact our team directly.

Gadsby Wicks is not liable for any diagnosis made from the content of this article, nor does it endorse any service or external site linked to within the article.

Always consult your GP if you are concerned about your health and wellbeing, or speak to us if you require legal advice.