What is colorectal cancer?
Cancers that start in the colon (large intestine) or rectum, which is the last part of the large intestine, are classified as colorectal cancers. Since the large intestine is commonly called the colon, we can refer to these types of cancer, collectively as colon cancer. While colon cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States, it is also one of the most commonly misdiagnosed. One of the hallmarks of colorectal cancer is that it is very slow growing and responsive to treatment if started at an early stage of cancer development.
Colon cancer, like all cancers, is classified by the stage of development. In this case, the stage is determined by how many layers of the intestinal wall the cancer has grown through, and the number of other structures (organs, or body cavity membranes) that the cancer may have spread to, both near and distant to the tumor. While there are sub-stages for each classification, the main stages are summarized below:
Stage I: the tumor is growing in the mucosae, or lining of the intestine, but has not yet invaded the lower layers of the intestine wall.
Stage II: the tumor has grown into the muscle layer under the lining.
Stage III: the tumor has grown through the muscle layer and into the connective tissue layer below the muscle. It may have also growth completely through the intestine wall and into the abdomen. However, at this stage that tumor has not yet spread to distant structures or organs.
Stage IV: the tumor has spread to other distant organs. In this case, there are colon cancer tumors growing in other body organs.
If diagnosed and treated in an early stage, colon cancer has a 5-year survival rate of over 90%. Sadly, failure to diagnose colon cancer, improper diagnosis, or a delay in the diagnosis, can dramatically slash survival rates; the 5-year survival rate of a patient with stage IV colon cancer is only 11%.
Why colon cancer is often wrongfully diagnosed
A wrongful diagnosis can be made in three ways: 1) a misdiagnosis, where the symptoms of colon cancer are mistakenly diagnosed as another disease or disorder, 2) a delay in diagnosis, and 3) a complete failure to make any diagnosis. Colon cancer is often misdiagnosed because of the symptoms—especially in the early stages—often mimic those of other gastrointestinal disorders. Some common misdiagnoses are:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
Symptoms of colon cancer, such as bleeding from the rectum, dark stools, fatigue, and abdominal cramps, often mimic those of benign conditions such as the ones listed above. Medical diagnostic tests need to be ordered by a physician in order to properly identify colon cancer.
A misdiagnosis leads the medical staff down a treatment path that will not remediate the cancer. A physician may start treatment for another condition while not ordering the proper diagnostic tests—such as a biopsy—that would properly diagnose cancer. In addition, the physician may not counsel the patient to seek further treatment from a specialist. This adds unnecessary medical costs and prevents the patient from getting the life-saving treatment needed.
A delay in diagnosis can result if a physician fails to recognize the early symptoms of colon cancer. In this case, the delayed diagnosis results in a postponement in the start of treatment, putting the patient at risk for missing the critical time period in which the cancer responds well to treatment. In some cases, the symptoms are treated and no diagnosis at all is made.
In all of these potentially deadly scenarios, patients waste precious time with incorrect, ineffective treatments while the cancer is allowed to advance in stage. If the correct diagnosis is eventually made, the patient often has to receive more aggressive treatment in the form of toxic chemotherapy and radiation. Sometimes, by the time the diagnosis of cancer is made, the cancer has already spread to other vital organs.
If a wrongful diagnosis or no diagnosis of colon cancer is made, it can result in harm from more rigorous treatment in order to combat the advanced stage cancer. In the worst cases, wrongful diagnosis of colon cancer can lead to death. If you or a loved one have been harmed as a result of a misdiagnosis, delay in diagnosis, or failure to diagnose colon cancer due to medical negligence, we may be able to help you. Please call our office at 312-527-4500 for a free consultation with one of our top-rated medical malpractice attorneys.