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Medical Errors and Cervical Cancer: What Every Woman Needs to Know

Cervical cancer used to be the leading cancer death for American women. Now, it’s considered the easiest female cancer to prevent thanks to the Pap smear as a screening tool. This test allows doctors to find precancerous changes in a woman’s cervix and treat them before the cancer develops. Through this simple test, the mortality rate for cervical cancer has declined by 50% within the last 40 years. However, when medical errors are committed, a delay in the diagnosis of the cancer and even death may occur.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer occurs in a woman’s cervix, which connects to the lower part of the uterus into the vagina. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), approximately 14,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year alone. Unfortunately, as many as 4,000 women will die of the disease. This is extremely tragic because when cervical cancer is detected early, the survival rate is nearly 100%.

Connection Between Cervical Cancer and HPV

Almost all cervical cancers are caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). There are several different strains of HPV. However, the only two types that are associated with cervical cancer are HPV-16 and HPV-18.

Pap Smear Screening

Routine Pap smears are the key means for preventing cervical cancer. It involves swabbing the cervix during a pelvic exam to collect cells for examination under a microscope. If abnormal cells are discovered, they can be removed before they have a chance to develop into cervical cancer. This makes this test a potential lifesaver when properly performed and accurately read.

Who Needs a Pap Smear?

Most women should start getting annual Pap smears at age 21 if they are sexually active. If a woman is over the age of 30 and has had three normal Pap tests in a row, then she should ask her doctor about having one every five years if the test is combined with HPV screening. Women over the age of 65 with a history of normal Pap test results may be able to stop having Pap smears completely. Even if a woman is in a monogamous relationship, she should still have regular Pap smears. This is because the HPV virus can be dormant for years, and then suddenly become active.

Common Medical Errors Leading to a Delay in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Cervical Cancer

Medical clinicians commit errors that may lead to a delay in the diagnosis of cervical cancer. This delay may prevent a woman from receiving proper treatment when her cervical cancer is still at a stage when it may be cured. The most common medical mistakes in this regard are as follows:

Pap smears are not routinely ordered

Pap smears are the key to preventing cervical cancer from developing. Because it is such a simple test to administer, there is simply no excuse for a woman’s physician not to order it on a routine basis.

Pap test results are misread

Although Pap smears are performed by medical doctors, the slides are usually sent to large laboratories to be read by cytotechnologists. Because cytotechnologists are not medical doctors and are required to read a high volume of Pap smear slides, the incidence of Pap tests being misread is alarmingly high. The American Medical Association (AMA) has documented that up to 30% of all Pap smear tests read as “normal” are actually not. Specifically, upon closer examination of the slides in question, the researchers discovered cancer or cancer-like cells present on the slides that required immediate treatment. Such “false negative” Pap test results can cause a delay in diagnosis and allow pre-cancerous cells to develop into cervical cancer.

Follow-up tests are not ordered when there is an abnormal Pap test result

Cervical cancer can’t always be diagnosed through a Pap smear. It may take additional testing to confirm cancer. If the Pap results are unclear or inconclusive, the next step will likely be a colposcopy. This is a procedure in which a doctor uses a microscope to inspect the cervix and remove a small piece of abnormal tissue for analysis. This is called a cone biopsy. If these follow-up tests are not ordered after an abnormal Pap test result, a delay in the diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer may occur.

The symptoms of Cervical Cancer are not recognized

There aren’t many physical manifestations of cervical cancer when it is in its early stages. This makes it even more important for women to have routine Pap smears. However, as the disease progresses, women may experience the following symptoms:

  • Irregular Vaginal Bleeding
  • Irregular Vaginal Discharge
  • Back or Pelvic Pain
  • Weight Loss
  • Nausea
  • Urination or Constipation Problems

If a doctor fails to recognize these symptoms of cervical cancer, then life-saving treatment cannot be implemented.

Treatment of Cervical Cancer

If a cone biopsy confirms cancer, the treatment will depend on the stage and grade of the cancer. In its earlier stages, cervical cancer may be treated successfully by removal through a hysterectomy. More advanced stages of cervical cancer may require extensive radiation and chemotherapy. In the most advanced cases, the cancer may not be treatable and death may occur.

Cervical cancer is a genuine tragedy since it is almost always curable when detected early. The effects of misread tests and medical errors can be deadly. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cervical cancer as a result of a delay in diagnosis, contact us today for a free consultation.

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